Ukraine’s Most Dangerous Tank Finally Appears Near Frontlines: British Challenger 2s Joining the Offensive

British Challenger 2 tanks have made their first appearance on the frontlines against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, with the Ukrainian 11th Separate Army Aviation brigade releasing footage of one of the vehicles which multiple reports claimed was operating near Russian positions. U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the Challenger 2s have been assigned to the 82nd Air Assault Brigade since their delivery in March, with the brigade also operating German Marder fighting vehicles and American Stryker armoured personnel carriers – indicating it is a high mobility unit. Only 14 Challenger 2 tanks have been deployed, with the bulk of Western made tanks received by Ukraine since March having been Leopard 2 and Leopard 1 tanks built by Germany and supplied by contries across Europe. The most capable of these, the Leopard 2A6, is confirmed to have taken multiple losses on the frontlines with at least one of the vehicles reported captured by Russian forces. Leopard 2A6s have also been deployed with mechanised infantry deployed in M2 Bradley fighting vehicles donated by the United States. While assets such as Leopard tanks and Bradleys are available in their hundreds from vast stockpiles in Europe and the United States, the Challenger 2’s numbers remain very limited with only around 200 in service outside Ukraine and only around 440 ever built. 

The Challenger 2 is the only post-Cold War tank class developed in the Western world, with its armour protection considered world leading although its fire controls and in particular its thermal sights are increasingly seen to be out of date. The tank also still uses a rifled rather than a smoothbore gun, and is the last in the world to do so, with Soviet tanks having transitioned to smoothbore guns in 1961 followed by German and American tanks in 1979-1980. An upgrade package commissioned by the British Army is set to belatedly introduce a smoothbore gun later in the decade, which provides far greater power particularly against enemy armour, although this is not expected to affect future units that may be supplied to Ukraine. The 14 Challenger 2s supplied are likely the most capable tanks in Ukrainian service, although they are rivalled by the Leopard 2A6, the T-84 Oplot of which less than half a dozen were built in Ukraine using Soviet production lines, and the T-80UK of which Ukraine is thought to have inherited a small number from the USSR. The primary drawback with Soviet tanks, however, is that the large majority lack thermal sights which have become increasingly standard since the end of the Cold War. It remains uncertain where Challenger 2s are currently deployed or when they will see their first combat, but their appearance comes as Ukraine’s new Western armour has taken very significant losses on the frontlines with Russian rotary wing aviation, and in particularly Ka-52 attack helicopters, reportedly exacting a particularly high toll in combat.