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New tank, new ammunition – increasing the Challenger 3’s firepower

9th June 2024 - 10:47 GMT | by Christopher F Foss in London


The Rheinmetall L55A1 smoothbore gun of the Challenger 3 will fire a new 120mm Enhanced Kinetic Energy round. (Photo: Rheinmetall)

The main war shot of the Challenger 3 will be a 120mm Enhanced Kinetic Energy (EKE) round which will be developed under a German/UK government-to-government agreement.

The in-development RBSL Challenger 3 main battle tank (MBT) has been armed with the latest version of the Rheinmetall 120mm L55A1 high-pressure chrome-lined smoothbore gun fitted with a thermal sleeve, fume extractor and a muzzle reference system. This setup will allow projectiles to be fired with a higher maximum pressure with claimed greater accuracy and less barrel wear.

The current Challenger 2 has been fitted with a Royal Ordnance 120mm L30A1 rifled gun which fires separate loading ammunition, projectile and charge, with the main war shot being an L23A1 armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot – tracer (APFSDS-T) with a depleted uranium (DU) penetrator for maximum target penetration.

The UK can no longer make projectiles with DU and only the US in NATO has been using this type of round due to environmental concerns. The Russians have, however, deployed 125mm projectiles featuring DU.

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Northrop Grumman has already decided to cease production of projectiles with a DU penetrator, both in 120mm and smaller calibres, making the option wholly unavailable.

The main war shot of the Challenger 3 will, therefore, be a 120mm Enhanced Kinetic Energy (EKE) round which has been under development under a German/UK government-to-government agreement.

It will feature a combustible cartridge, propellant and a new long-rod fin-stabilised penetrator of advanced design. Once fired all that remains is the stub of the cartridge case which is ejected into a bin.

In addition to the 120mm EKE, the L55A1 gun can also fire Rheinmetall’s 120mm DM11 Air Bursting Munition round which has been deployed for some years. DM11 is the replacement for the older DM12 high-explosive anti-tank multi-purpose tracer (HEAT-MP-T) round which is no longer effective against more recent armour arrays.

The DM11 has also been referred to as a high-explosive fragmentation – tracer (HE-FRAG-T) or multi-purpose high-explosive-tracer (MP-HE-T). The DM11 has a time-delay fuze with the electronic module on the breech giving different modes to detonate the round at a specific point in the projectile’s flight path. The round can be timed to explode for maximum effect either above, in front of or inside a target (such as after penetrating a wall).

A brick wall after being penetrated by a 120mm DM11 projectile, which will also form part of the Challenger 3’s arsenal. (Photo: Rheinmetall)

Another feature of the DM11 is that it is insensitive munition (IM) compliant, enhancing crew survivability. It has typically been used against dismounted infantry and to breech battlefield obstacles.

The first example of the Challenger 3 was at the main Rheinmetall Unterlüß facility in Germany where the 120mm smoothbore gun and its suite of ammunition has also been produced. While BAE Systems has been the prime contractor for the ammunition fired by the Challenger 2, it has not been involved in the 120mm EKE programme, according to a company spokesperson.

Under current plans, only 148 Challenger 2s will be upgraded to Challenger 3 standard and it remained to be seen as to whether the number would be sufficient to enable production of the 120mm EKE round to be undertaken in the UK.

Shephard's Eurosatory 2024 coverage is sponsored by:

BAE Systems
Christopher F Foss


Christopher F Foss

Christopher F Foss is an internationally recognised authority on armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and other weapon systems, …

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