The Chieftain main battle tank is one of the most important vehicles of British armor history. A modernized version is still being used by several countries (most notably by Jordan and Iran) and even after forty years it is still a fearsome battle tank. We took a look at its development history in our previous article – but what about its service?
A first batch of test tanks appeared in Germany in December 1962 (in the 5th Royal Tank Regiment) and these were tested in some of the worst conditions possible for a tank. These conditions revealed some of the flaws of the early Chieftains. Their off-road capability was poor, the tank was underpowered, the radioman was a busy crewmember indeed (he had to load the gun, load machineguns and operate the radio) and the electro-mechanical rammer was very unreliable. It was operated by a light sensor that had a tendency to activate whenever any shadow fell over it and the rammer activated spontaneously – an unsuspecting loader was in danger of losing an arm to this infernal device. Some crews simply deactivated it and pushed the shell and charge forward manually (this later became standard after this procedure was proven safe by trials). The difficult three month trials also ended with a tragedy when one loader forgot to insert insulating inlays into the breech in the heat of action. The gun backfired into the crew compartment, killing two crew members (this incident caused the gun to be modified so the gun could not be fired without the inlays.
The vehicle was officially approved for service on the 1st of May 1963 with the name Chieftain. Mass-production started slowly with only 40 Mk.1 tanks being made – all these served as training vehicles for the new vehicle crews. The first truly mass-produced version was the Mk2, of which 532 were made – this version had an improved L60 650hp engine and the first 6 were used by the 11th Hussars in Germany.
It was at this point that the British started considering exporting the vehicle. One of the most interested potential buyers was the Israeli Defense Force. All went well – the "father of Israeli armor", General Israel Tal, who was later responsible for the Merkava development, preferred the heavily armored British designs over the French vehicles (naturally the opportunity to beat the French to the contract appealed to the British) and two Mk.2 Chieftains were transferred to Israel for trials in early 1967. Unfortunately, at this point the Six Day War started. The British, fearful of losing contracts in Arab countries, sent frenzied messages to Israel to move the Chieftains from the borders with Egypt. The now legendary laconic response from Israel was: "Don't worry, we've moved the border".
Trials continued for a while after that and both the Israeli and the British learned many interesting things from them. Israel officially asked the British for the purchase and license production rights for the Chieftain on 17.10.1968. Unfortunately, at this point the British government was generally full of anti-Israel sentiments and officially denied the request. How "realistic" British foreign policy was at the time can be illustrated by the fact that the Chieftain was actually offered to Iran and Libya instead later on. The Americans were shown the Chieftain as well – they were not interested in the chassis but in the 120mm gun. Despite some favorable firing testing results, they later opted for the Rheinmetall smoothbore instead.
The Mk.3 version (with an improved L60 engine variant and new commander's cupola) was produced from 16.9.1969 with 199 older Mk.2 tanks rebuilt to Mk.3 standard as well. There were several variants of the Mk.3 (including an export one for Iran) but the main one was the Mk.5. The Mk.5 Chieftain was powered by an improved 750hp L60 variant. With its 54,8 tons, it had a power-to-weight ratio of 13,8 hp/t. It was also armed with the new 120mm L11A5 gun version. The first Mk.5s were produced in 1972 and there was a whole series of sub-variants (such as the Mk.5/3 with a new and improved fire control system). From the Mk.5/5 variant onwards the gun could fire new extremely powerful APFSDS shots as well.
The Mk.5 was also widely exported – a modified version called Shir with a 1200hp Condor CV-12TCA engine was sold to Iran (Iran bought a total of 707 Chieftains of various versions) and in 1976 Kuwait bought 165 Mk.5/2 Chieftains. Some leftover Shirs from the Iran program (some were not delivered due to the Iranian revolution) were delivered to Jordan in 1979 (274 in total). These had 1200hp Condor engines, new TN-37 transmissions and Marconi fire control systems – they were also a bit longer. The Jordanians named this variant Khalid and used it from 1981. The last foreign Chieftain user was Oman with 27 Chieftains delivered in 1984-1985.
Although designed to fight the Soviets, the Chieftains luckily never fired a shot in anger in Europe. The first real combat use took place during the Iran-Iraq war but the results were unconvincing: the Iranian and Iraqi crews were both poorly trained and misused their vehicles. It was, however, discovered that the T-62 could under certain conditions penetrate the Chieftain armor. Around 50 Chieftains were captured by Iraq and later given by Saddam Hussein to the Kingdom of Jordan as a gift – an unwelcome one as the Jordanians did their utmost to at least appear neutral in the conflict (and they had placed their own order for Chieftains). In the end these "gifts" were used for spare parts for the Jordanian Khalid version. The last combat use of the Chieftains was likely the Kuwait defense against the Iraqi T-72 tanks during the 1991 invasion. Sources are sketchy but apparently the Chieftains fared well against the Soviet vehicles and scored numerous hits at long range.
In Armored Warfare
In Armored Warfare the Chieftain Mk.5 is a tier 5 main battle tank. Although it is not very mobile and has rather poor penetration compared to other vehicles of its tier, these drawbacks are compensated by some of the best armor on tier 5 as well as by great accuracy and a large pool of hit points. Currently, however, the Chieftain Mk.5 is in the process of a rebalance to make it more true to its historical counterpart.
Armor and firepower will both be revisited to provide the protection this vehicle needs and deserves as well as to offer players a different style of gameplay from the other tier 4-5 main battle tanks. The Chieftain is and will be truly unique amongst the members of the heaviest class of Armored Warfare and will in the future be well represented in the game.