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I joined Ukrainian soldiers in Brit-made Challenger 2 tanks that blast Russian invaders from up to 4.5km away

THESE are the monster Challenger 2 tanks blasting the Russian invaders in Ukraine.

The Sun gained world-first access as crews unleashed the British-made tank’s devastating 120mm main gun.

The Challenger lets rip with a Hesh round which moulds to the surface of a target before detonating to cause extra destruction

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The Challenger lets rip with a Hesh round which moulds to the surface of a target before detonating to cause extra destructionCredit: Peter Jordan
A Ukrainian army sergeant fires live rounds above the trainees to spur them on

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A Ukrainian army sergeant fires live rounds above the trainees to spur them onCredit: Peter Jordan

Soldiers hailed the world-beating tank as a 64-ton “sniper” that ­regularly hits Russian targets up to 4.5km away — nearly three miles.

We joined the troops at a secret location close to the front line as they blasted shells down-range.

One tank fired on the move with its gun pointing sideways — destroying a target the size of a dinner plate from more than a mile away.

Green-tinged flames burst from the barrel as a visible blast-wave pulsed over the earth, lifting a veil of dust.

Then they fired from a standing position, unleashing an armour- piercing depleted uranium dart and high explosive “squash head” rounds designed to rip through Russian tanks and hardened concrete bunkers.

A split second later the four-man crew blasted white phosphorus smoke grenades and spewed clouds of white diesel fumes to mask their next moves, as they would in combat.

Even in training the crews face the constant threat of Russian attacks from drones, jets and missiles.

Nearby, we saw plumes of smoke from heavy Russian air strikes.

The British-trained squadron commander, who goes by the call sign “Kayfarick”, said the best thing about the Challenger 2 was its gun.

He said: “I like the Challenger 2. It is like a sniper, it is very accurate.

A Ukrainian tanker shares impressions of using a British Challenger 2 tank in battle as Ukraine makes counteroffensive

“It can shoot precisely and it has some good armour.

“It is a really powerful weapon, but it all depends on how it is used.”

A British Challenger 1 set the record for the longest ever confirmed tank kill, at 4.7km — just under three miles — during the 1991 Gulf War.

Kayfarick, 26, said his crew had been regularly blasting targets at 4.5km.

But most of their missions were firing at Russian armoured positions, including infantry bunkers and dug-outs, and vehicles.

The Challenger 2s are yet to be used in a classic tank-on-tank battle because the terrain has not allowed it, he said.

He added: “The longest we have fired the gun is 4.5km.

“It was extremely precise.

“It hit its targets.”

The tank’s laser range-finders can track targets up to 10km away, or 6.2 miles.

It is also the only modern main battle tank to use a rifled barrel — which makes it wildly more accurate than its competitors.

Kayfarick, 26, said the weapon was “ten times better” than the gun on a Soviet-era T-80 tank, which he ­commanded before the Challenger squadron.

He added: “Compared to the Challenger, the gun on the T-80 is nothing.”

Britain donated a squadron of 14 Challenger 2s last year.

Amid a cloud of white smoke a soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade

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Amid a cloud of white smoke a soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenadeCredit: Peter Jordan
Sun man Jerome Starkey behind the machine gun on the Challenger turret

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Sun man Jerome Starkey behind the machine gun on the Challenger turretCredit: Peter Jordan

One was destroyed by a drone after one of its tracks was wrecked by a mine, and another two were badly damaged by blasts in Ukraine’s brutal counter-offensive last autumn.

The battle-hardened soldiers praised Challenger’s “fully stabilised” turret and gun that allows the crew to aim and shoot fast in any ­direction on the move.

They also said the Challenger was more comfortable and spacious for the four-man crew than the cramped conditions they were used to.

But Kayfarick said the downside was the Challenger’s size and weight.

At 64 tons it is roughly the same as a German Leopard 2 and a US Abrams M1A2 — but 20 tons heavier than a Russian T-80 and with a 30 per cent lower power-to-weight ratio.

Despite its 26litre V12 diesel engine producing a whopping 1,200 horsepower, the crews in Ukraine said the Challenger 2 struggled with mobility.

The squadron’s chief engineer, who uses the call sign Chol, said: “There are pluses and minuses with everything, and the minus is its mobility — its ability to manoeuvre across ground.

“They keep getting stuck in the mud because it is so heavy.”

The crew invited The Sun to clamber aboard and we sat on the turret as the Challenger 2 roared over the countryside and its gun circled round the clock.

But we soon saw what the soldiers meant about mobility when it sank into a bog.

Kayfarick blasted the rookie crew for going too slowly though a gully, though they said they only went slowly for fear of bucking us off.

 The Challenger 2. It is like a sniper, it is very accurate. It can shoot precisely and has some good armour. It is a really powerful weapon 

Kayfarick

But they then turned the mishap into a training exercise, as Kayfarick ordered up a second tank to haul the first one out of the muck.

The more experienced crew charged at full speed through the wet ground, diving and lurching in and out of the gully and emerging safely on the other side.

Britain’s donation of Challenger 2s paved the way for allies to follow with US Abrams tanks and German-made Leopard 2s last year.

But the Challenger squadron revealed to The Sun that only seven of the 14 tanks donated in March 2023 are still fighting fit.

Besides the one which was destroyed by a Lancet suicide drone in September — luckily the crew survived and the tank’s burnt-out hull was recovered — another was assigned to a training unit elsewhere in Ukraine.

Two others were damaged in battle but have since been repaired, including one that had its barrel replaced.

But a bigger problem is reliability. Five have broken down and Kayfarick said spare parts from Britain sometimes take months to arrive and he had a shortage of skilled mechanics to keep the hardware fighting fit.

He said: “It takes a long time to get spares. The logistics are very complex, at this end and your end.”

And he revealed that a chronic shortage of fresh soldiers on the front lines meant trained tank crew had been removed from their vehicles in order to dig trenches for the infantry.

Kayfarick said rubber pads on the tanks’ tracks and the wheels kept on wearing out.

He said: “The parts in the turret and the parts of precision aiming are also not so long-lasting.

“They have been breaking from the start.”

The bogged down crew set about trying to get the stuck tank back into action

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The bogged down crew set about trying to get the stuck tank back into actionCredit: Peter Jordan
The second tank arrives to tow the first one from the mud

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The second tank arrives to tow the first one from the mudCredit: Peter Jordan

Kayfarick signed up after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

A few months later he was commanding a formerly Soviet T-80 tank in the lightning Kharkiv counter-offensive.

And twice he dodged death as he stood in the turret and bullets hit the machine gun mounted directly in front of him.

In Kharkiv he fought a tank-on- tank duel against two Russian crews, but both the Soviet tanks missed their targets.

The top-secret armour on Challenger 2s is reputedly some of the best in the world, but the tanks which The Sun saw were not fitted with the 12-ton armoured add-ons that British troops used in Iraq.

Instead the troops in Ukraine had welded extra armoured bars to one of their tanks’ sides and front to give it extra protection.

At least two other tanks have put cages over their turrets to protect them from aerial attacks, Kayfarick said. The work was done at the crews’ own expense.

On the day we joined the tank crews, infantry troops were also training on the range.

Exhausted soldiers dug fresh trenches, harassed by battle-hardened sergeants who fired live rounds over their heads to make it feel terrifyingly real.

During the exercise the recruits took pot shots at low-flying drones, lobbed hand grenades out of their bunkers and blasted rocket- propelled grenades down-range, before scrambling to treat wounded comrades and drag them through the trenches to an evacuation point.

Chol and Kayfarick said the Challenger 2s had also been used to terrify Russian infantry — by charging directly at their trenches.

It may have been a bluff but Kayfarick said the Challenger 2 did have the right type of ammunition for attacking infantry.

The Sun's Defence Editor Jerome Starkey and photographer Peter Jordan

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The Sun’s Defence Editor Jerome Starkey and photographer Peter JordanCredit: Peter Jordan
One of enemy Russia’s ageing T-80 tank fleet

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One of enemy Russia’s ageing T-80 tank fleetCredit: Alamy

He added that he feared commanders had failed to grasp that Nato tanks were built for different roles from Soviet ones.

He said: “Soviet tanks are battle machines built for multiple tasks.

“British and Nato tanks are mostly about sniping — tank versus tank.”

Kayfarick and his crews were in the UK last winter training with British tank crews.

But he said Ukraine’s top brass were torn between “the completely different approach of the Soviet school and the Nato school of fighting.”

He said: “The main problem for Challenger 2s on the battle ground is a commander who doesn’t understand what it was designed for, what are its pros and cons.”

But whether it is sniping at bunkers and dug-outs, supporting Ukraine’s infantry charges or terrifying enemy troops, Chol and Kayfarick agreed that the Challenger 2s were doing the thing they were built for — fighting Russian invaders.

Kayfarick said: “That is what these tanks are for.

“Thank you, Britain, for sending them.

“Please, if you can, send more.”

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