Friday, 19 October 2012


On Oct. 29, 2003, Liberal Defence Minister John McCallum and Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier announced the end of the country's tank force

According to Lt.-Gen. Hillier, the army's Leopards had served their purpose and were now of limited use. The vehicle of the future was instead a LAV III variant, which the general, an armoured officer, called state-of-the art and a "war-winner."

"A mobile gun system is the right vehicle for Canada's army and will provide an excellent capability on Canadian Forces operations," Lt.-Gen. Hillier said. "We are losing a millstone that has hamstrung our thinking for years,"(emphasis added), referring to the Leopard tanks.

Flash forward nine years and we find that the Canadian Forces have acquired 100 Leopard 2A4 tanks from the Netherlands in 2007. Twenty Leopard 2A6Ms were borrowed from Germany from mid-2007 to support the Canadian deployment in Afghanistan, with the first tank handed over after upgrading by KMW on August 2, 2007, and arriving in Afghanistan on August 16, 2007.  Two Bergepanzer 3 B├╝ffel recovery vehicles were purchased from the German Bundeswehr for use with the Canadian deployment in Afghanistan.  An additional fifteen Leopard 2A4 tanks are being purchased from Germany for spare parts.  An additional 12 surplus Pz 87 were purchased from Switzerland in 2011 for conversion to protected special vehicles. (For more on the tortured history of Canada’s Leopard 2 acquisitions check out the excellent collection of pages at CASR)

 Currently the Canadian Army plans to be able to deploy 40 combat tanks. The Canadian Forces want 2 combat-ready squadrons of approximately 20 tanks each: 1 for deployment and a 2nd for rotation into theater to allow for depot repair and overhaul of the 1st.

They also need 40 for training. Another 2 squadrons of 20 tanks each are required for collective and individual training in Canada: individual training at the Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick; and squadron training at CFB Wainwright at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre in Alberta

Finally, there are at least 20 key support vehicles such as armored recovery vehicles, which can winch out stuck tanks, or lift a turret or engine out for repairs.

The Department of National Defence believes this is the minimum fleet size necessary to support a deployed tank squadron.

 What happened?
 Why do we have tanks?
 Is there such a thing as a Peace keeping tank?
 Just how wrong was Gen. Hillier?

What happened is Afghanistan. That war highlighted a need for armoured fire support. Leopard 1 tanks (known in Canadian service confusingly enough as “Leopard C2’s) still in service, were brought in to fill that need. They were always seen as a stopgap measure and eventually the Leopard 2’s were purchased to replace them.

When the Army contemplated getting rid of tanks they planned to replace them with a variety of direct fire vehicles. The system of direct fire vehicles contemplated by the army (the mobile gun system, tow missiles and ADATs, all on LAV platforms) were advertised as being a system to defeat enemy armour.

The key here is the need to defeat enemy armour. Although they are a formidable anti-tank system that is not what Canada’s ‘new’ tanks are for. The anti-armour mission has decreased in importance as the possibility of Canadian Forces engaging in front line combat against traditional armies has declined. 

Fire support for infantry has always been the goal, the increasingly complicated nature of modern warfare dictated that troops have always have powerful organic fire support. The Leopard 2 tanks provide mobile, protected, accurate fire support. That is why we have them.

Tanks can be used for peace keeping. They are very intimidating, and intimidating people is better then killing them, especially in a peacekeeping situation. Tanks give troops the luxury of time; time to evaluate a situation while rocks, bottles, bullets and worse bounce off all that heavy armour. Tanks are accurate; the 120mm high velocity gun on a Leopard 2 is astonishingly accurate at long ranges under a wide variety of conditions. Hitting what you want, and just what you want, without danger of ‘collateral’ damage is a peacekeeping “must have”. The troops inside a tank are surrounded by modern sensors and hooked into a comprehensive communications network, all the things necessary to manage and control complex situations. Not the be all and end all for peacekeeping, but a valuable tool.

In the final analysis Gen. Hillier was not that wrong. I suspect that what he was concerned about was an army that was still preparing to fight massed Russian tank forces in Europe. He wanted a more mobile, more flexible force that could be used in a wide variety of situations.

It’s not whether or not you have tanks, its how you organize them and how you plan to use them that matters. Canada’s tanks are a powerful addition to our forces, a useful addition to our military ‘insurance’ policy and if used properly a flexible instrument of national policy.