The Challenger 2 tank has served the British Army with distinction for almost 20 years, with over 400 units seeing operational service in the Gulf and the Balkans since 1998.

Considered to be one of the best protected tanks in the world, Challenger 2 has already outlived its predecessor, the Challenger 1, and could have a role to play in theatres of war for another 20 years if a technology refit which could include new thermal imaging systems and upgraded gun control equipment goes ahead.

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Design work began on the Challenger 2 tank just over 30 years ago and it was rolled out for the first time in 1998. With over 150 major modifications on the Challenger 1 - only 5% of their parts are interchangeable – it offered a perfect balance of firepower, protection and mobility.

Challenger 2 tank firing. Credit BAE Systems

Challenger 2 was already technologically advanced when it first entered service. Crewmen in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo had the benefit of augmented reality for the first time ever. This technology would overlay additional information into the gunman’s sight and offered day and night thermal imaging capabilities. The technology also permitted 360-degree monitoring, which split up the battlefield into different areas so each crew member could watch a different segment to ensure the whole area was constantly surveyed.

The advanced digital fire control system and better gun control gave crew members a much better chance of hitting the target, even when travelling over rough terrain. Firepower was also greatly increased thanks to the 120mm gun, while Challenger 2 has a 26-litre diesel engine delivering 1,200 horsepower that can hit speeds of 37mph (60kmph) on road. There’s a hydrogas suspension that helps Challenger 2 to hit speeds of 24.8 mph (40kmph) on rough terrain.

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Gavin Twidale, Chief Engineer, BAE Systems Land said last year: “Our mission was to design the best tank in the world. It’s wonderful to have started my career as an apprentice designing Challenger 2 and now to see our new generation of engineers looking at how to extend its life. We all feel intensely proud to have designed, built and supported this iconic tank.”

Challenger 2 has received several critical updates since 1998. However, as confirmed by the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, there’s now need for a more substantial overhaul that would extend Challenger 2’s lifespan until 2035.

The Challenger 2 Life Extension Project

A century after the first armoured all-terrain fighting vehicles commonly known as ‘tanks’ appeared on the battlefields of the Somme, plans are afoot to fit Challenger 2 with tools suited to the challenges of both battle and peacekeeping operations.

Just before Christmas last year, BAE Systems and German contractor Rheinmetall Landsysteme GmbH were both awarded £23 million for the two-year Assessment Phase of the project, with the winner gaining the £700m contract to carry out the upgrades on the 227-strong fleet.

“In order to achieve this, BAE Systems will be addressing the several key systems that need to be replaced or upgraded, re-invigorating Challenger 2 and allowing it to serve the British Army with distinction for the next two decades,” the domestic military contractor said.

Challenger 2 tank smoke - BAE Systems

As part of its plans to win the contract, BAE wants to fit the Challenger 2 with a new Thermal Imaging System that will offer improved 24-hour performance. The Commander’s Primary Sight is also due for an upgrade that “will include thermal imaging and give the Commander a full 24-hour, day and night hunter/killer capability, delivering greater situational awareness and flexibility”.

The new Gun Control Equipment will be future-proofed, while Electronic Architecture that connects the sub-systems will be upgraded to enable new interfaces, reconfigurable displays and controls. There are also plans to modernise the Fire Control System, which is the brain of the weaponry system and responsible for sighting, gun control and sensor sub-systems.

Both BAE and Rheinmetall Landsysteme GmbH will now perform technical studies on the Challenger 2 and produce digital models to determine the appropriate upgrades for the fleet.

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