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UK no longer able to manufacture large-calibre gun barrels, BAE Systems admits

8th June 2023 - 16:00 GMT | by Christopher F Foss in London


The Challenger 2 MBT is armed with a 120mm L30 rifled tank gun which was made at ROF Nottingham which closed some years ago. (Photo: author)

The UK may need to cannibalise stored Challenger tanks and AS90 howitzers to source replacement barrels for platforms sent to Ukraine as no manufacturing capability currently exists.

While great emphasis is being placed on NATO supplying Ukraine with armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and massive amounts of ammunition and other equipment, little thought has been given to the supply of replacement barrels for these systems.

In peacetime these vehicles and artillery systems fire very few rounds, not only to save money but also due to the introduction of simulation and static trainers, so they have a long life.

The life of a barrel is dictated by the type and number of rounds fired. For a rifled tank gun, for example, this life is around 500 rounds after which accuracy decreases so it has to be replaced. A smoothbore gun has a longer life.

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In the case of a typical 155mm artillery barrel its life is shorter when it is engaging targets at long range. For example, a 155mm/52cal barrel would use six modular charge systems (MCS) to obtain maximum range. Reports indicate that some Ukrainian artillery systems are firing over 100 rounds a day at maximum charge.

The UK has supplied Ukraine with Challenger 2 MBTs fitted with a L30 120mm rifled guns as well as AS90 155mm/39cal self-propelled howitzers, which have probably already used some of their barrel life up before being donated.

Both of these use barrels produced at the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Nottingham which was the sole source for UK tank, artillery and naval gun barrels with some smaller calibres made at BMARC at Grantham. Both of these are now closed and the sites redeveloped.

An Armament Production Facility was established at Barrow-in-Furness by BAE Systems but this was shut down some years ago due to lack of orders. 

The 155mm/39cal barrel for the best-selling BAE Systems M777 series Lightweight Howitzer is made at Watervliet Arsenal in the USA.

In the short term the UK could probably supply replacement barrels to Ukraine by stripping these from vehicles no longer in front-line service.

In a statement BAE Systems said: 'We no longer have barrel manufacturing equipment. But we have retained the workforce and the knowledge. We are now looking into what it would take to restart building the capability in the UK.'

The barrel is a key part of a weapon system and unless manufactured to the highest standard it will not be accurate. In addition some barrels have to be chrome lined for increased life and the number of suppliers that can do this is also small.

In addition to barrels for the Challenger 2 and AS90, ROF Nottingham made barrels for many other exported weapons including the 120mm L11 for Challenger 1s (now in service in Jordan) and 105mm Light Gun barrels for L118 and L119 towed systems which are still used by many countries.

Others included 120mm mortar barrels for the Armoured Mortar System (Saudi Arabia National Guard), 115mm smoothbore guns (T-62s in Egypt), 105mm Low Recoil Force (Thailand) and 76mm barrels for the CVR(T) Scorpion.

The UK is not the only country to have lost its barrel manufacturing capability with at least one European nation passing all of its equipment to India.

Challenger 2

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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