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Chieftain tank


By Sakhal

The first British tank of the postwar saw the light of day initially as a result of a declaration of the War Ministry about the probable characteristics of a tank that would replace the Centurion. The declaration was made in 1958 and it reflected the lessons learned in the Korean War. In the top of the list of characteristics was a more powerful cannon with a faster rate of fire: the ideal would be ten shots in the first minute and six shots per minute in the subsequent four minutes. The second demand was a better fire control system to improve the chances to hit in the first shot. The third on the list was an increase of the armor, specially in the frontal arch. In fourth place, the tank had to have its weight limited to 52 tonnes and, to finish, it should have a maximum speed of about 42 kilometers/hour. According to these requirements, Leyland started to work that same year in the project of a chassis for the new tank, while Vickers took charge of the turret in which would be mounted an L11 rifled-bore 120-millimeter cannon, recently developed by the Royal Ordnance Factory. The first prototype resulting from this collaboration appeared in 1959; this prototype was followed by six more, in 1961 and 1962. After a laborious development, the new tank was accepted by the British Army in 1963. However, it would not enter service until 1967 - as the FV 4201 Chieftain - due to problems with the engine, transmission and suspension. It is noteworthy to mention that the FV 4201 had been preceded by the project FV 4204, designed by Leyland; two exemplars had been built and used to test a number of characteristics that later were incorporated to the final Chieftain. In total were made twelve variants of the Chieftain, being the main improvements the engine and the fire control system. In the early 1970s the Chieftain replaced entirely the Centurion in the British Army and the around 900 units commissioned were deployed with the four armored divisions - of 148 tanks each - that United Kingdom kept in West Germany, assigned to the British Army of the Rhine.

Chieftain tank

The Chieftain was the best tank of the NATO between 1962 and the mid 1980s. Its 120-millimeter cannon was very superior to the ones in use by the armored forces of the Warsaw Pact. In this illustration it can be seen the thermal casing installed around the cannon and the smoke launchers in the sides of the turret.

Characteristics of the Chieftain

From the moment of its apparition, it was clear that the new tank had been projected to fight from power to power: the front of the hull had been built of a single molten piece, as it was its turret without mantlet, while the rest of the tank had been assembled by welding. The inclination of the glacis in the front of the turret had been clearly designed to ricochet the solid projectiles; all in all, the Chieftain showed very few spots for "shot traps". The suspension of Hortsmann type, similar to the one installed in the Centurion, was designated for three pairs of road wheels and three return rollers, whith the entire ensemble protected by armored skirts longer than usual. The engine was a Leyland L60 fed with poly-fuel and it was combined with a semi-automatic gearbox; this ensemble was conventionally placed in the rear part and it moved rear drive sprockets. The transmission was of a modern type by Merritt-Brown. The driver sat in a semi-reclined position, which allowed to reduce the height of the hull. The commander and the gunner were placed in the right part of the turret and the loader in the left part. The commander's cupola could rotate - manually - independently from the turret. The 120-millimeter cannon had an elevation angle ranging from +20 to -10 degrees. A stabilization system GEC-Marconi allowed the cannon to fire while the tank was moving cross-country, allowing a good chance to hit in the first shot. The cannon was accompanied by a co-axial 7.62-millimeter machine gun and a similar weapon was mounted in the commander's cupola, being possible to aim and fire it from the interior. The actual characteristics of the Chieftain were somewhat better than the ones in the specification, albeit not much more, with a maximum speed of 50 kilometers/hour. The fuel tank with a capacity of 955 liters gave a maximum operational range of about 500 kilometers in road.

In the first Chieftain, like in the Centurion, the gunner had to use a 12.7-millimeter machine gun that fired tracing bullets to mark aiming ranges and check if the cannon was well aimed, but later versions had a Barr & Stroud laser telemeter integrated with a digital fire control computer, allowing so to know the exact distance to the target and to rectify the aiming with great precision. A six-tube smoke launcher was installed in each side of the turret for spreading smoke curtains with the purpose of hiding from the enemy. The storage of ammunition was 64 projectiles for the cannon, 300 for the 12.7-millimeter machine gun and 6000 for the 7.62-millimeter machine guns. The cannon fired a variety of separate-charge ammunitions: false-ogive breaker, armor piercing, smoke, shrapnel and practice grenades. The separate-charge ammunition eased the task of the loader and allowed to store separately the projectiles and their explosive charges, being this considerably safer. When the false-ogive projectile hits the target, it gets smashed against the armor, in such a way that when exploding the charge, the shockwave causes the inner face of the armor to break in many small splinters that are projected at high speed in the interior of the tank, damaging the crew and the mechanisms. The armor piercing projectile consists of a sub-caliber projectile with a cover - called sabot - that surrounds it, filling the space in the bore of the cannon. When the shot exits the cannon, the cover is disintegrated and the sub-caliber projectile continues on its trajectory at a very high speed, superior than in any other type of projectile, possibly hitting the target and penetrating its armor. The Chieftain was equipped with a complete set of long-range optics for night vision, with an infrared searchlight mounted in the left side of the turret; this one had a range of 1000 meters when operating with infrared light and 1500 meters when operating in the spectrum of visible light. A system of NBC (Nuclear-Bacteriological-Chemical) protection was installed in the rear part of the turret, where it filtered the contaminated air, sending clean air to the interior. The Chieftain could ford water streams up to a depth of 1.066 meters without any preparation. Equipment for deep fording was developed, but never used. If necessary the Chieftain could equip as well a bulldozer shovel hydraulically operated.

Chieftain tank

Chieftain Mk 3, FV 4201.

Exportations of the Chieftain

The British Army acquired around 900 tanks Chieftain and they sold well abroad as well. Iran bought around 700 tanks Chieftain in 1971 and, prior to the islamic revolution of 1979, had bought more than 1000 units in total, many of which were lost (and not few were captured) during the long war against Irak. The enthusiasm shown towards the Chieftain by the pro-western government of the Sha in Iran gave a well needed impulse to the British tank industry, which started to develop a program for a new tank known as Shir. The version Shir 1 was denominated FV 4030/2; it was a latest model of the Chieftain fitted with a better engine Perkins/Rolls-Royce Condor with 1200 horsepower with a fully automatic gearbox and improved ammunition for the cannon. The weak point of the Chieftain was constituted by its Leyland engine, and hence the Shir was equipped with a new 12-cylinder Diesel engine CV12TCA that developed a maximum power of of 1200 horsepower at 2300 revolutions per minute. This engine was attached to a new transmission David Brown TN 37, with four forward speeds and three reverse speeds. The Sha of Iran authorized an order of 125 of these tanks in 1974, and later 1225 units of the version Shir 2, which unlike the Shir 1 had its hull and turret built with the very perfected Chobham armor; but, when he went on exile due to the revolution of 1979, the order was cancelled, albeit later the 278 tanks Shir that had been already produced were supplied to Jordan at an offer price with the designation Khalid. Meanwhile, the Shir 2 was to have a different future. After a later revision it became the new British tank, the FV 4030/3 Challenger, following the failure of an initiative of Anglo-German joint development in 1977 and being cancelled as well the project called MBT-80 (Main Battle Tank 80). Also Kuwait and Oman bought the Chieftain; Kuwait bought 130 of them in 1976. The circumstance that they were countries with large petroliferous incomes the ones that bought this tank can illustrate about its price. In the 1960s and 1970s the Chieftain was, among all the tanks produced in the world, the one with more armor and the one equipped with the largest caliber of the cannon. Those unique characteristics - that would be surpassed by the Israeli Merkava in the late 1970s, regarding the armor, and by the Soviet T-72, regarding the caliber of the cannon -, were reflected in their price, which in 1977 ascended to 300000 pounds for every unit fully equipped. Many of the Chieftain in the British Army - the most part of which were still in service or in reserve in the mid 1990s - were improved by the addition of the Stillbrew composite laminated armor and with the adoption of the Barr & Stroud thermal aiming and observation system developed for the Challenger.

Engineers' vehicles

To replace the older armored support vehicles based in the Centurion, it was developed a wide range of armored recovery and bridge-laying vehicles based on the Chieftain. The recovery vehicle FV 4204 was equipped with two windlasses, one capable of 30482 kilograms and the other capable of 3048 kilograms. With the front shovel stuck in the ground, the capability of the main windlass increased to up to 91445 kilograms. The armament consisted in one 7.62-millimeter machine gun in a cupola and smoke launchers. The bridge-laying vehicle FV 4205 could carry two models of bridges, one 12.2 meters long and another one 22.8 meters long. The bridge could be deployed in 3-5 minutes and retrieved in 10 minutes. The armament consisted of two 7.62-millimeter machine guns.

Chieftain tank

The chassis of the Chieftain served as basis for a diversity of armored vehicles, among them the bridgelayer tank Mk6 that could cover up to 22.8 meters or 12 meters with the standard bridge.

Specifications for Chieftain FV 4201

Crew: 4

Armament: One L11 56-caliber 120-millimeter cannon; one L7 7.62 millimeters co-axial machine gun; one L7 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the commander's cupola; one auxiliary 12.7-millimeter machine gun for aiming tracing (used only in the early years); six smoke launchers in each side of the turret

Ammunitions: 64 x 120-millimeter cannon; 300 x 12.7-millimeter machine gun; 6000 x 7.62-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 38 millimeters in hull sides; 120 millimeters in hull front; 195 millimeters in turret front

Length (total): 10.795 meters

Length (hull): 7.518 meters

Width: 3.500 meters

Width (including searchlight): 3.657 meters

Height: 2.895 meters

Weight: 54.1 tonnes (Chieftain Mk 3); 55 tonnes (Chieftain Mk 5)

Ground pressure: 0.9 kilograms/square centimeter

Engine: Leyland L60 4B opposed-piston engine with 6 cylinders and 12 pistons and a maximum power of 750 horsepower at 2100 revolutions per minute

Maximum speed (in road): 48-50 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 450-500 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 3.419 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 0.914 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum fording: 1.066 meters





Article updated: 2014-12-22

Categories: Tanks - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-12-18


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