After prolonged competition among American, British, and German tank manufacturers, Britain's Ministry of Defense prefers to ``buy British'' and keep the country's tank industry in business at least through the 1990s. In a major military procurement decision announced this week, Defense Minister George Younger said the government has offered Vickers PLC about $165 million to build a prototype tank to replace the British Army's aging fleet of Chieftain tanks. The decision meant that, despite vigorous lobbying by the General Dynamics Corporation of the United States, Vickers's leading rival, it is not likely to receive British orders for a new version of the Abrams M-1/A-1 tank now in service in the US Army.
Mr. Younger said that the decision was based on a number of gauges, including performance, cost, logistical support, and prospects for overseas sales, which have been estimated to exceed $20 billion.
``The driving force in all of this is to get the best possible tank,'' Younger said. ``While it's nice to feel that there is a good chance the best possible tank will be British, that is not the determining factor.''
Britain needs to replace its 600 Chieftain tanks by the mid-1990s, which is well before the NATO countries will be ready to cooperate in joint production of a main battle tank, though that remains a long-term goal. Many senior British Army officers reportedly favored the American-made Abrams tank that entered service three years ago, though the model they preferred, the M-1/A-1 is still in the design stage and is not expected to go into production until 1992.
Younger admitted there was a divergence of views within the Defense Ministry over which tank the Army should buy. The final decision was taken by a committee chaired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Younger said there was now a ``solid consensus.''
The government has given Vickers until September 1990 to produce nine prototype tanks from its factory in Leeds, England, which employs about 1,500. At that time, a final decision will be made based on whether Vickers meets the government's criteria. If the current tank fleet is replaced one for one, total orders could be worth almost $2 billion, with export sales of many times that amount, especially to Middle East countries.
According to Christopher Foss, a tank expert, the British decision was strongly influenced by reports from tank crews who said they favored British-made equipment over American or German equipment because support and maintenance would be easier.
``The bottom line was what the men in the field told them: We want British because we can support it logistically,'' said Mr. Foss, who is military editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.
Foss said the Challenger2 Mark11 includes more armor than an earlier version, Challenger1, and has a completely new turret, an improved computer, and a new sighting system. ``The Challenger1 is one of the best tanks in NATO; the Mark11 is much better,'' he said.
This week's decision has been compared unfavorably with an earlier one by the Defense Ministry to ``buy British'' and to develop the Nimrod radar surveillance aircraft at a cost of almost $1.5 billion. The aircraft proved unworkable, and after wasting development funds Britain ended up buying the American AWACS.
Foss says the Challenger decision is different, since Britain's tank industry has a strong track record and, unlike the Nimrod case, the decision to go ahead with Challenger2 involves only one prime contractor, which is the world's oldest tank manufacturer. There is also reluctance in Britain to let the US have a virtual monopoly in providing battle tanks to the world market.
``If we close down the British tank factory, it would leave the field open to the Americans,'' Foss said. ``The Germans can't export outside of NATO, and the French have not done at all well recently.''
The tank was first used in World WarI to break through the deadlock on the western front after the British military adapted US-made Holt tractors to military use. In the first decisive tank engagement, which helped turn the course of the war, a fleet of British tanks broke through the German lines at Cambrai in 1917. After the war, Britain, France, and Germany developed their tank industries rapidly.