by John Norris
A light tank with a “sting”
The usefulness of any military vehicle has to be measured in terms of it length of service. In some cases, designs have a very short service life while others never get beyond the prototype or field trial stage. At the other end of the scale, there are some vehicles which just seem to go on forever. Into this category falls the range of British-designed vehicles termed as “Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked)” or CVR(T). This includes several variants such as the Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle armed with the 30mm Rarden cannon, Samaritan ambulance, Samson recovery vehicle, Striker anti-tank vehicle armed with Swingfire missiles, and Spartan APC. However, by far, the most instantly recognizable in the range is the Scorpion, given the term FV101 when in service with the British Army.
In 1967, the British Army approached the Coventry-based company of Alvis Ltd with a requirement for a new, fast AFV for the reconnaissance role. Alvis was asked to produce 30 prototype vehicles for evaluation trials. Because the company had vast experience in producing armored vehicles, the design team came up with the prototypes (which came in on time and within budget).
One design was given the sequence number P1-P17. This would eventually become the Scorpion. The prototypes underwent a series of extensive field trials in countries such as Norway, Australia, Canada, and Abu Dhabi, in order to prove the reliability of the design in extremes of temperature and terrain handling.
The successful trials concluded in May 1970, leading to an order for 275 vehicles. The number was later revised and increased to over 300.
The first production vehicles left the factory in 1972 and entered service with the Blues & Royals Regiment of the Household Cavalry the following year. Scorpions were soon being issued to other armored regiments including the 17th/21st Lancers and the 14th/20th King’s Hussars which trained the three-man crews of the new vehicles during gruelling conversion exercises such as “Glory Hawk.”
Between 1973 and 1994, Alvis produced more than 3,000 vehicles of all variants of the CVR(T) range that would go on to be used by 23 armies around the world. Of this production figure, the British Army purchased 1,500 vehicles. In 1983, the Royal Air Force Regiment took delivery of Scorpions for airfield defense, as well.
BORN OUT OF THE COLD WAR
At the time of the Scorpion’s development in the early 1970s, the strength of the British army was around 170,00 with bases around the world, such as Hong Kong and Belize (formerly British Honduras). It was also the height of the period known as the “Cold War” – a state of political tension between the alliance of western states (NATO) and the Soviet Union (Warsaw Pact). At the very heart of this stand-off in Europe was Germany which, at the time, was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East).
Member states of NATO deployed forces to Germany with the British Army’s contribution being known as the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). This was the front line and much of NATO’s armored force was based there, including the newly-developed Scorpion and other CVR(T)s.
Scorpions were also deployed to Belize and used regularly on NATO exercises as part of the armored inventory. Air-transportable on C-130 Hercules aircraft, the Scorpion had the ability to operate in all terrains and extremes of climate, from arid desert to sub-zero conditions of the Arctic. Because of the versatility, Scorpions were also used in Counter-Insurgency (COIN) roles. It could also be delivered on pallets using the Low altitude Parachute Extraction System, LAPES, to operate with rapid deployment forces. Scorpions proved their worth by being able to land with amphibious forces.
The vehicles in the design range of CVR(T)s share many automotive parts, such as road wheels. Aluminum armor up to 12.7mm thickness protect a Scorpion against light caliber weapons, though is inadequate against heavier weapons and anti-tank missiles.
Termed a “light tank,” it is fitted with a 76mm calibre L23A1 gun mounted in a fully traversing turret capable of firing a range of ammunition types including smoke, canister, high explosive and HESH (High Explosive Squash Head) anti-tank rounds. A total of 40 rounds are carried for the main gun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition for the L43A1 7.62mm caliber co-axially mounted machine gun.
An extra machine gun can be mounted of the roof of the turret for additional firepower. A bank of four smoke grenade launchers is fitted on either side of the turret to provide smoke cover when moving across exposed ground and an additional 16 smoke grenades are carried for reloading.
In the 1980s, trials were conducted with a larger caliber gun, the 90mm Cockerill Mk3 M-A1. The gun fired the usual range of ammunition types, including Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) rounds. Because of the large size of the rounds, storage was reduced to 37 rounds. This version is sometimes known as either the Scorpion 90 or Scorpion 2. It entered service with a couple of armies, but it was the original 76mm gun version that remains the most popular type in service.
All vehicles in the CVR(T) range are fitted with five pairs of road wheels and torsion bar suspension. The drive sprocket is at the front with the idler wheel at the rear of the layout and there are no return rollers.
In use with the British Army, the Scorpion would be fitted an Avimo LV10/76 day/night gun sight with a laser rangefinder. The driver could use an Avimo NV53 image intensifier for night driving and the turret would be fitted seven Avimo NV53C sight units to provide all-round vision for the vehicle commander. However, optics and communications to suit customer requirements could be fitted to the vehicles. Full nuclear, biological and chemical warfare protection could also be fitted.
During its service life with the British Army, the Scorpion underwent a number of upgrades and was also used as an experimental test bed to develop further variants, including the Stormer and Streaker series. When it first entered service, the Scorpion was fitted with a front-mounted Jaguar 4.2-liter petrol engine developing 195bhp at 4,750RPM to give a road speed of around 50mph and an operational range of 400 miles. In the 1980s, vehicles were fitted with a Perkins diesel T6-3544 engine developing 200bhp at 2,000RPM. With a 93-gallon capacity fuel tank, the speed remained unaltered the operational range was increased to 600 miles.
According to the manufacturers details the Scorpion measures 15 feet and 8.5 inches in length over the rear stowage bin and the gun forward. Height to the top of the commander’s periscope is ten feet and 8.75 inches and width overall is seven feet and four inches.
The Scorpion has a ground clearance of 14 inches according to one set of manufacturers details issued, while another set of documents states that ground clearance is 16.75 inches. It can scale vertical obstacles up to 19.5 inches in height, remains operational at angles of tilt up to 45 degrees and can manage gradients of 31 degrees. The vehicle was issued with a collapsible flotation screen to allow it to ford deep water obstacles, reaching speeds up to 4 mph using its tracks for propulsion. A propeller kit was available to increase speed to 6 mph, but, like the flotation screen, it was hardly ever used. In any case, the Scorpion could ford water obstacles up to 42 inches depth.
During its time in service with the British Army, the Scorpion was used twice in main combat conditions. The first time was in 1982, following the invasion of the British Falkland Islands by Argentina.
The British Government responded by deploying a Task Force to regain the islands. Among the forces sent were two troops from B Squadron of the Blues & Royals Regiment equipped with four Scorpions and four Scimitars. These were to act in support of the infantry crossing the boggy terrain of the Falkland Islands. Although weighing 7.8 tons combat ready, they have a ground pressure of only 5.5lbf/in2 making them the ideal combat vehicle to deploy to such an inhospitable area.
The Argentine army had deployed a couple of French-built Panhard AML-90 wheeled armored cars to the island. When the invasion was over, the 90mm gun-equipped vehicles never directly engaged the Scorpion tanks.
During the drive across the island, one of the Scorpions hit a mine. Although the vehicle sustained damage, the crew was unharmed. After the conflict, all the crews and vehicles returned to their base at Combermere Barracks at Windsor in Berkshire.
The Scorpions second time in action was during Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991) following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Coalition Forces (headed by the United States) deployed an allied armored force. Among Britain’s commitment were 32 Scorpions of the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards along with other vehicles in reconnaissance units. The 1st Squadron of the RAF Regiment also deployed their Scorpions for the campaign as part of the 1st British Armoured Division (to which they were attached). Scorpions were also used for counter terrorist operations during 1970s and 1980s.
The British Army retired its fleet of Scorpion tanks from front line service in 1994, while other CVR(T)s such as the Scimitar remain in service. Some Scorpion tanks have been “hybridised” to extend their service life by replacing the turret with its 76mm gun with that of the FV721 Fox mounting a 30mm Rarden gun. This has led to some confusion to enthusiasts. On first glance, the configuration, known as the Sabre, looks very similar to the Scimitar. The main giveaway is the differences in the size of the Fox turret which is much smaller.
The Scorpion has also been withdrawn from service by the New Zealand Army, Kuwait, the Belgian Army (which used over 700 CVR(T)s), and Spain’s military. Incredibly, the Scorpion and other CVR(T)s were used by the Spanish Navy until 2009. Although the design is now over thirty years old, that does not mean the end of its service life and a number of countries in Africa, Middle East, and Far East still use them. Several countries in South America, including Chile, Honduras, and Bolivia, also continue to use the CVR(T) range and the Scorpion.
Today examples of Scorpions are exhibited in tank museum such as Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, the Muckleburgh Collection in Norfolk and the Norfolk Tank Museum, just outside Norwich, which also has examples of other CVR(T)s. The design of the range has become popular with private owners and examples often make regular appearances at military vehicle gatherings in Britain, Europe, and the United States.
The Alvis Fighting Vehicle Society (www.afvsociety.co.uk) lists ownership of vehicles produced by Alvis that are now in private hands. The group attend events across the UK and puts on special demonstrations of CVR(T)s which, naturally, includes the Scorpion.
The whole range has been turned into plastic and die-cast models and as such are among the most recognizable of post-war AFVs. Prices range from as low as $15,000, depending on condition and also on the version of CVR(T).
The vehicles are not scarce but they are great to own and terrific fun can be had driving them at high speed. In fact, the Scorpion is in the Guinness Book of Records as holding the fastest speed for a production tank, established in 2002, when a vehicle reached 51.10mph, at the QinetiQ Test Track at Chertsey in Surrey, England.
Not bad for an oldie.