Ukraine has lost its first Challenger 2 apparently to enemy fire as its troops battle to widen the growing breach in Russia’s lines.
Social media footage showed the tank on fire with thick smoke pouring out of the hull. It is unclear if any crew were lost in the incident close to the settlement of Robotyne.
The Challenger 2 is considered among the most formidable tanks in the world with high protection offered by its secret Dorchester armour and its ability for long-range sniping with its special sighting system.
That unique thermal gunnery sighting box above the gun barrel is what immediately identified the tank as a Challenger 2, most likely from Ukraine’s 82nd Air Assault Brigade that has been leading the attack on Russian lines.
An indication of the tank’s resilience was demonstrated by the imagery showing its turret still intact indicating it had not “brewed up” or been blown off by internal explosions, as frequently happens with Russian tanks.
This is mainly down to the explosive shell charges in the turret being stored inside armour protected compartments that are also stored underneath the hull, the tank’s most protected area.
It is also highly likely that the crew survived the attack, which was either caused by artillery, kamikaze drone or mine-strike, said former Challenger tank commander Col Hamish de Bretton Gordon.
“The images shows that it's on fire but there doesn't seem to be a lot of damage to the tank and no doubt the fire suppression system inside will prevent it getting too badly damaged,” he told The National. “There's no reason why it can't be towed back, repaired, then returned to the thick of the fight.”
He also urged Britain to immediately replace that Challenger 2 and send many more that are “sitting in sheds on Salisbury Plain”.
If the tank is not recoverable it will be the first ever loss of a Challenger to enemy fire. One was near-destroyed after being hit in the rear by another Challenger in a friendly fire incident during the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Another was severely damaged by Iraqi militias using rocket-propelled grenades in the town of Al-Amarah in 2007. A second was damaged earlier that year by a roadside bomb.
But more worrying for the Russians is that the Ukrainians are now pushing more heavy equipment and troops into tactical rear areas of the Robotyne breach, with the Challenger unique among tanks in that it can fire a High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) shell 17 kilometres.
The advance means that positions in the key occupied town of Tokmak could come into artillery range and more importantly the M14 motorway, that links mainland Russia to annexed Crimea, would come within the HIMARS rocket trajectory.
It was also reported that Ukrainian light infantry have advanced beyond the Surovikin defensive line of anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth obstacles, further widening the breach around Robotyne and the village of Verbove.
It is also possible that the Ukrainians have finally got past Russia 500 metre wide minefields that have caused numerous casualties and proved a formidable obstacle.
Having already rushed in its VDV airborne troops from other parts of the front line, it is understood that Moscow has few capable reserves to prevent further Ukraine advances.
That Challenger 2 tanks are now deploying close to the front line would suggest that Russia might soon face an armoured onslaught.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu described Ukraine's counteroffensive on Tuesday as completely unsuccessful.
"Ukraine's armed forces have not achieved their goals on any front," the defence ministry quoted Mr Shoigu as saying.
Russia on Tuesday said it downed Ukrainian drones over regions close to Moscow and over the Kremlin-controlled Crimean peninsula.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said air defence systems had "destroyed drones which were trying to carry out an attack on Moscow."
There had been "no casualties", Mr Sobyanin said on social media.