Andrew Wood is a former Tower Hamlets Councillor, and a graduate of Kings College London’s War Studies Department.
Eleven months after the war in Ukraine started, after multiple war crimes, after millions of refugees fled their homes, and after extensive damage to the global economy, only now are we sending Ukraine a handful (14, or six per cent) of our 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.
The last one was built over 20 years ago; the core design goes back almost 50 years to a tank originally designed for Iran; they are not state of the art anymore, albeit may still be effective against tanks of a similar age.
Do we actually want Ukraine to win this war? Or is the objective mainly to encourage others to transfer more of their own tanks?
The evidence suggests that we will provide enough arms to keep Ukraine in the fight, but not enough for them to actually win nor to reduce Ukrainian casualties. Our policy seems to be that we must keep most old weapons in Britain, mostly designed to fight the Russians in Europe, rather than gift them to Ukraine, who will actually use them to fight the Russians in Europe.
Ukraine winning the war is the best hope for peace on the continent; not the British military keeping hold of its current stocks of weapons, just in case.
Ironically, we were far more generous in supporting the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945 than we are now in supplying Ukraine today.
But it is the historic example of Finland that I fear we are following. They too fought bravely against an attack from Russian territory in 1939. But the following spring the Soviet steamroller crushed them.
They too also only received small quantities of arms from the West. And Russia, as the three times more populous state, whose economy has suffered less than Ukraine’s, can continue to mobilise new troops and hope to wear down even the most heroic resistance.
There are a number of areas where we could transfer war-winning material to Ukraine at minimal cost to ourselves.
For example in two years’ time, we plan to retire a whole fleet of armour infantry fighting vehicles, the Warrior; at least 534 of these remain in service out of 789 delivered up to 1995. They won’t be replaced as we will move to wheeled armoured personnel carriers (the Boxer) instead.
We could transfer the whole Warrior fleet, including all of our spares. Yet so far, we have only announced sending the predecessor to Warrior, 50-year-old Bulldog armoured personal carriers.
We also plan to put new turrets on only 148 of the Challenger 2 hulls (but with new engines, transmission, and suspension systems) over the next few years to create Challenger 3. We built 386 Challenger 2’s but only retain 227.
So given that we plan to retire 79 of the hulls and all 227 turrets, why are we only transferring 14?
But with the exception of Iraq (twice), we have not used main battle tanks in mass since 1945 (in Korea we only sent 64 tanks). We kept the capability mainly as insurance against Russian aggression. That aggression is here now.
Logically, we should pass on most of the Challenger 2 to Ukraine, leaving us enough for training and minor wars. It should be possible to build new hulls for the new turrets creating wholly new tanks and more than 148. Or we could lease American Abrams M1 tanks (they have 3,450 in store) as an interim measure.
We are also retiring 30 Tranche-1 Typhoon fighter jets in 2025, when more than 50 per cent of their fatigue life remains unused. Why not start training Ukrainian pilots on them now?
Some will worry that this will leave us defenceless, but the government has previously created large gaps in defence capability with no resistance: no aircraft carriers between 2014 and 2020; no maritime patrol aircraft between 2011 and 2021.
And we continue to have gaps. The last of seven E-3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft were retired in 2021 (two now fly in Chile), whilst the three replacement E-7 Wedgetail are currently still being manufactured; they are expected to enter service in 2024.
For the last year, the Ukrainians have relied on many small donations, and now have a menagerie of different weapons from different countries. Just maintaining them all must be a nightmare. It would be more efficient to transfer large fleets to them rather than dribble in small quantities.
But the concern is that the main reason why we are sending so little is that too much of our armoured fleet is not in a fit state to be used in intensive combat operations eleven months after the war started. Ben Wallace hinted at that on Monday about both the Warrior and our AS-90 self-propelled artillery (only eight of which are currently ready to go – out of 30!).
If that is the case (and it is widely rumoured) then we need to know now, because what that really means that much of the Army’s paper capacity to fight a high-intensity conventional war is a Potemkin mirage. We can then decide how to best support Ukraine and meet our Budapest Memorandum obligations.