UK to send tanks to NATO war games amid growing fears of full-scale conflict with Russia

Britain will send more than 50 tanks to Eastern Europe to take part in the largest NATO war games in a generation as warnings grow about the threat of all-out conflict with Russia.

A majority of the ageing Challenger 2 main battle tanks will be transported by rail via the Channel Tunnel from the UK, but 12 tanks will be brought out of storage in Germany – where they are based – to join the exercise, it is understood.

British forces are already sending hundreds of other types of military vehicles by ferry to Germany for the opening phase of the four-month exercise, called Steadfast Defender, which began at the end of January.

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The 51 tanks will join the war games in May, marking the biggest training deployment of British armoured and mechanised forces since 1984.

Major Simon Robertson, 44, the second in command of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corp, was overseeing the loading of military trucks, transporters and infantry vehicles onto one of the ferries at Marchwood Military Port in Southampton on Tuesday.

He said Britain needed to be “ready for anything”.

“This exercise, along with all the others, is just a way of us training and practising and strengthening those bonds and understanding… that we have with our NATO allies,” he said.

A British Challenger 2 tank on patrol in Basra, Iraq. Pic: Reuters

But MPs have voiced concern about the size of the British tank fleet – which at just 213 tanks is only a fraction of the 1,750 tanks in the Russian inventory.

Russia’s military is also thought to have lost more than 3,000 tanks so far during its war in Ukraine.

Heightening fears about capacity, only 148 British tanks are due to be upgraded to the Challenger 3 variant – an £800m programme that is designed to enhance the fleet’s capabilities and extend its out-of-service date to 2040.

The UK last year became the first country to give Western tanks to Ukraine for its war effort, transferring 14 Challenger 2 tanks.

In addition, a squadron of British tanks is in Estonia as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian aggression.

The Challenger 2 has previously been deployed in Bosnia and during the 2003 Iraq war. In service since 1998, the tank weighs 62.5 tonnes and is armed with a 120mm rifled gun and a 7.62mm chain gun.

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Footage of destroyed British tank in Ukraine

The NATO war games will involve around 90,000 soldiers, sailors and aviators from across the 31-member alliance, operating from the land, sea, and air as well as using cyber and space operations.

The exercise will take place in a number of countries including Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland.

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It comes as Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service warned that Russia is preparing for a military confrontation with the West within the next decade.

In an annual assessment of security risks, the spy agency said this week that a build-up of allied forces could deter Moscow from attacking.

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