The British Army’s Challenger main battle tank is a beast of a machine. It weighs around 62t (equivalent to 30 large family cars) and sports a huge 120mm gun, and can go up to 35mph on the roughest terrain.
The Challenger 1 saw combat in the first Gulf War and was then superseded by the Challenger 2 in the 1990s, which fought in the 2003 Iraq war and beyond. Its performance during these conflicts has earned the Challenger the title of one of the best tanks of its generation, up there with the US M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2.
But not content with this, the British Army is constantly looking at how it can boost the Challenger 2’s capabilities further.
Here’s where ‘Megatron’ comes in, it’s the army’s nickname for an experimental Challenger tank that is kitted out with a range of new technologies that could eventually be rolled out across the tank fleet.
While not quite being able to transform into a giant alien robot like its namesake, this version is very much a Challenger 2 on steroids. Operated by the Armoured Trials and Development Unit in Bovington, Megatron has been extensively modified compared to its regular Challenger 2 counterparts.
One of the key elements of Megatron is a significant increase in its armour protection, pushing its combat weight up to 75t, making it one of the heaviest, if not the heaviest, tanks in the world. This armour configuration is similar to the Dorchester Level 2 (DL2) package fitted to Challengers deploying to Iraq for Operation Telic.
To protect the crew, the tank is fitted with double-layered explosive reactive armour blocks on the hull, as well as additional armour blocks on the turret. Slat armour, is fitted to protect the rear of the vehicle against RPG attacks, and the underbody is uparmoured to protect against mines and buried IEDs.
One of its most notable external features is its mobile camouflage system, which is essentially an invisibility cloak for both the visible and thermal spectrum. Indeed, this is no ordinary camouflage netting, this MCS is able to mask the vehicle’s heat signature when viewed through thermal binoculars and can even make the tank look like a car or animal.
MCS is also capable of reducing a vehicle’s radar signature, just like the stealth coating on a fighter jet.
Fielding ‘smart’ camo is a growing trend for land forces around the world, particularly with the proliferation of thermal technologies beyond first-tier militaries. The British Army will field this system on their new Ajax vehicles, and it’s likely this fielding will extend to the Challenger.
The US Army has also trialled MCS on its Stryker 8×8 vehicles that are currently stationed in Europe.
Another external feature of Megatron is a comprehensive ECM suite, evidenced by the array of antennas on top of the turret. These effectively jam signals that could be used to trigger a roadside bomb, creating a safety bubble around the vehicle.
Although these new capabilities give the Challenger formidable capabilities, they also present several challenges. Adding so much armour, for instance, weighs the tank down and puts extra strain on vehicle parts, not least the engine and the suspension. Megatron has reportedly been fitted with a new suspension system and a new 1,500hp engine to retain its mobility.
But at 75t, the tank becomes ungainly, particularly when it comes to air mobility and utilisation of infrastructure including bridges (military and civil) and roads.
Megatron is just one example of how the British Army is trying to maintain the combat relevance of its ageing tank, with some of the lessons learned likely informing the ongoing Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme (LEP).
The LEP, currently in its assessment phase, will see the tank get new sighting systems, gun control equipment and an enhanced electronic architecture and brought up to a ‘Mk2’ standard.
Its rifled 120mm main gun could also be replaced, although that is not a main requirement.
Challenger 2 upgrades are long overdue, with allies such as the US (M1), France (Leclerc) and Germany (Leopard 2) already forging ahead with their own upgrade programmes. Russia and China have also been busy developing their own latest-generation tanks, which have the potential to outmatch western tanks in the not-to-distant future.
Megatron, therefore, is the tank that the British Army needs, sooner rather than later.