HC Deb 14 July 1980 vol 988 cc420-1W
Mr. Onslow

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on tank procurement and deployment policy for the British Army.

Mr. Pym

The Army's future main battle tank requirements have been reviewed against the latest assessment of the Warsaw Pact threat and the progress of project definition of MBT-80. The Warsaw Pact has for many years been able to deploy more tanks in war than NATO; this advantage now stands at some 3 to 1. In addition the Soviet tanks that have entered service in recent years are technically advanced and highly effective. There is every indication that new tanks, incorporating further improvements, will come into service in the 1980s.

BAOR's present main battle tank, has been in service since the 1960s. Although it is the most effective NATO tank of its generation and continues to be improved, its performance will not be fully adequate against the increasing threat. Under existing plans it would be replaced by MBT-80. But it is now clear that MBT-80 cannot be available until the early 1990s and in order to meet the threat a much earlier enhancement of BAOR's armoured capability is required.

I have therefore decided to bring into service by the mid-1980s a new tank known as Challenger. Challenger incorporates a number of technological advances including Chobham armour and a 1,200 horse-power diesel engine. Its firepower will be similar to the improved Chieftains, but its level of protection and mobility will be markedly better. An immediate order is to be placed with ROF Leeds for enough Challengers to equip one of BAOR's four armoured divisions. The estimated cost is some £300m. The final number of Challengers to be bought will be the subject of further study but the present assumption is that they will replace up to half the existing Chieftains in BAOR.

The MBT-80 programme will be discontinued but a programme of tank development, building on work already done for MBT-80, will continue. The longer term requirement including the replacement of the remaining Chieftains will be the subject of further study, which will encompass the possibility of some form of collaborative project within NATO as well as the option of an improved Challenger.

The purchase of Challenger will lead to a significant qualitative improvement in BAOR's armoured capability from the mid-1980s and, by the retention in service of replaced Chieftains, will make it possible to deploy more tanks in war. In order to effect an immediate enhancement of our armoured capability I have also decided that a ninth armoured regiment should be formed in BAOR this November by reroling an armoured reconaissance regiment. It will be equipped with Chieftains currently held in reserve for war. These measures are consistent with the objectives of the NATO long term defence programme and will, I am sure, be warmly welcomed within the Alliance.

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