Land operations UK’s Challenger 3 tanks to enhance land capabilities

While advances in robotic combat vehicles offer great potential to transform the future of land operations, they’re only one of the many elements that Western militaries are embracing in order provide a tactical overmatch against emerging threats like Russia and China. On 7 May 2021, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had agreed to a contract worth £800m with Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) to deliver 148 upgraded, fully digitised Challenger 3 main battle tanks, with the aim of extending the platform’s out-of-service date to 2040. The contract is part of a defence review that will see the number of tanks cut down from 227, with these upgraded models entirely replacing the UK’s Challenger 2 tanks, which have been in service since 1998. “The Integrated Review described a transformed army that will be more lethal, better protected and better connected than any of its comparators,” said deputy chief of the general staff, Lieutenant General Chris Tickell, in that announcement. “Challenger 3 is a manifestation of exactly that change and will sit at the heart of our warfighting capability. Its digital open architecture will ensure that it is integrated across the battlefield, its main armament will overmatch its adversaries and the crew will be afforded a unique level of protection. It is a battle winner.”

The overhaul will include a new 120mm smoothbore gun, a new automatic target detection and tracking system, new thermal long-range cameras as part of an advanced day/night image system, new modular armour, an active protection system, and a turret that is compatible with the tanks of the UK’s military allies.

Each Challenger 3 will also be fitted with a digitised backbone connecting it to the other vehicles in its brigade, enabling data sharing across domains to deliver an information advantage along with multi-domain integration, providing an edge over opponents. In the same announcement, Major General Darren Crook, director of land equipment for the MoD’s defence equipment and support (DE&S) department, said: “This is a significant step forward for defence and UK industry as we continue to develop and modernise our fleet of land vehicles, and I am looking forward to working closely with our industry partners to deliver the very best capabilities we can for the British Army.” Ultimately, the Challenger 3 represents a significant generational upgrade in capability for the British Army and will play a key role in its attempts to provide a tactical overmatch against emerging threats in the years to come. Designed to take part in multi-domain warfare, its modular design offers an enhanced survivability suite capable of taking on any opponent that it is likely to encounter, underpinning the UK’s credibility in the land domain.

to secure “best of breed” regardless of where it’s developed, Mills says. It also enables code reuse. At the core of the RCV project is a desire to drive the development of autonomous software and behaviours through collaborations with a range of partners across industry and academia. This approach is paying off, with the army currently working alongside various academic institutions, industry partners and other Department of Defense services to develop autonomous software and behaviours. “The MOSA approach has seen more than 40 universities, government R&D centres and industry partners – including both traditional defence sector players and outsiders – become active developers, users or testers of the autonomy software library,” explains Wallace. To augment external development, the army has launched a ‘software foundry’ to provide software products to programmes requiring ground autonomy and robotic control. It’s a concept that creates a software development capability within the army – a team of soldiers and civilians working in an informal creative environment more akin to Silicon Valley than the military. Creating in-house software expertise is also considered key to future battlefield operations,


giving soldiers the capability to respond to software issues themselves on the frontline. “The military operating environment imposes unique challenges on ground autonomous systems – unstructured environments, off-road operation, GPS-denied, no fixed communication infrastructure to rely on and so on – and that means we can’t just wait for industry to solve this problem for us,” says Mills. “Our approach positions the army to maximise where we do have commonality with commercial ground autonomy, while enabling the army to incrementally solve unique challenges through a soldier-informed agile process.”

Man and machine

At the forefront of any modern software project is AI and leveraging data to maximise outcomes. RCVs are no different. “The army has a robust programme in utilising AI across multiple operational and institutional elements of the force,” says Mills. “AI techniques for both on and off-board learning are being used to improve the ability of systems to detect objects and plan their paths. These are in various stages of development.”

Experimental AI techniques are also being used in aided target recognition, to support crew members in unburdening tasks, for mission planning and to assist in preventative maintenance. “These AI use cases are used to augment human or system performance,” says Mills, but with all key decisions guiding the use of lethal force still falling on the shoulders of the soldier. Wallace says soldiers are heavily involved in development and testing via “touchpoints” and trials. “After every soldier touchpoint, we analyse our current draft requirements and update them in accordance with the soldier feedback,” he adds. “Virtual experimentation tools have also been used to put soldiers into video game-like simulations with various robotic capability options to evaluate new tactics, techniques and procedures and provide feedback on what they like and what wasn’t useful.” Requirements will be kept in draft status until the last possible moment to allow all feedback to be incorporated and to prevent a fixed baseline – something Wallace says will help “deliver the most relevant capabilities to the warfighter”. And those warfighters won’t have to wait long to benefit from these new machines in the field. After a successful test phase in 2020, the next major RCV exercises will be conducted at Fort Hood, Texas, in the third quarter of 2022, with the first units set to be equipped between 2028 and 2030. That’s not such a long lead time for a major leap in technology to be developed and tested for the battlefield. The end result will be a flexible family of platforms that provides enhanced operational capabilities and the prospect of dramatically reducing everyday risks for soldiers on the frontline. ●

Defence & Security Systems International /

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