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by Martin Shadwick

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In recent speeches, Defence Minister John McCallum has repeatedly pointed to the need “to make difficult choices, asymmetric, unequal choices” on the path to military transformation in Canada. The fate of Canada’s recently upgraded Leopard C2 main battle tanks (MBTs) has figured prominently in these ministerial musings. “Arguably, in today’s world where there is a need for rapidly deployable forces,” he noted in a January 2003 address to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, “Canada’s tanks may be less relevant.” In a similar vein, the Minister asked delegates to the February 2003 annual general meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations to ponder two questions: “Do we need tanks? Many, including some in uniform, have their doubts. I share these. Does the army need some form of direct-fire support? That is certainly a priority. Moreover, there exists a made-in-Canada direct fire capability that the [US Army] is in the process of acquiring in large numbers. This is an option that we will explore.”

The Minister’s remarks on the future of the Leopard C2 are neither surprising nor inappropriate. In a defence establishment facing enormous fiscal and human resources challenges, the relevance of every existing capability, every existing weapon system, must be assessed and difficult choices faced. The Leopard C2 is indeed a legacy system (although some may posit that it is a relative stripling alongside the Diefenbaker-era Sea King), it is not rapidly deployable (although not even the LAV family is all that rapidly deployable, at least at the moment), and, for its critics, does not fit easily into the milieu of the Revolution in Military Affairs and military transformation.

Nor are doubts about the utility of the tank a new phenomenon in Canada. The Trudeau government’s 1971 White Paper, for example, stated that the land force would be “reconfigured to give it the high degree of mobility needed for tactical reconnaissance missions in a Central Region reserve role. The Centurion medium tank will be retired, since [it] is not compatible with Canada-based forces and does not possess adequate mobility. In its place a light, tracked, direct-fire support vehicle will be acquired.... This vehicle, which is air portable, will be introduced later into combat groups in Canada.” The result, promised Defence in the 70s in a tone not out of place in 2003, would be “a lighter, more mobile land force capable of a wide range of missions.”

Fate, however, intervened. Trenchant criticisms from the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, and others, led to the abandonment of a nascent order for 131 diminutive, British-built Scorpions and the subsequent retention, and limited rebuilding, of a cadre of Centurions. In due course, a less benign strategic environment, entreaties from Canada’s allies, and other factors prompted a volte-face, and a late-1970s order for 114 German-built Leopard C1s. Redeployed and upgraded, notably with a thermal sight, these remain in service as Leopard C2s.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Canada’s Leopard C2s are irretrievably doomed, but “benchmarking” against allied planning could prove instructive (and disquieting). Although main battle tank inventories have plummeted in most allied countries (thereby explaining why late-generation MBTs are on offer at fire-sale prices), there remains a marked reluctance to completely eliminate the main battle tank. Even the smaller allied countries seek to retain a critical mass (e.g., one regiment) of MBTs, and genuine combined arms expertise. The Australians, who are no slouches at military transformation, continue to place a high value on the mobility, protection and firepower of their Leopard AS1s, and currently plan to retain them, suitably upgraded, until 2015-2020. Do our friends and allies simply possess more effective ‘tank lobbies’, or do they know something we do not know – or have forgotten?

“The essence of the tank,” as Major-General Clive Addy (retd) has reminded us, “is to provide close and reliable, protected and mobile, direct fire support to the ‘system’ known as the Army.” These are clearly useful attributes in a medium-intensity environment, but they are also germane in the context of increasingly challenging, and increasingly risky, post-Cold War peace support, human security and humanitarian assistance operations. Even if Canada does not deploy MBTs overseas, post-Kosovo, Canadian soldiers – whether committed to combat operations, peace support operations or even classic, Pearsonian­style peacekeeping – must possess a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics and battlefield operational employment of the tank.

Eliminating the Leopard C2 because one sincerely believes that there is no viable Canadian operational requirement for such a vehicle, or because one sincerely believes that it is unaffordable (even at the comparatively modest cadre/training level) is one thing, but to eliminate the Leopard simply because its tracks and appearance render it ‘politically incorrect’, or because it does not fit some preconceived notion of ‘transformation’, or because of blinkered, internecine warfare within the Army, would be quite another. If the Leopard is to be jettisoned, the case must rest on well-argued and objective operational analysis, not on bureaucratic politics or political imagery.

Similarly, if the Leopard is doomed, it is imperative that it not be relinquished until some form of reasonably credible direct-fire support alternative is in place. This, as the Minister intimated, might well be a member of the LAV/Stryker family with a 105 mm gun. It should be noted, however, that such a vehicle would probably not be available in quantity for quite some time, would not be inexpensive, and would still require substantial improvements in Canada’s airlift and sealift capabilities if it is to be rapidly deployable. It would indeed be ironic if the LAV variant turned out to be an interim successor to the Leopard, pending the availability of some of the future armoured vehicle concepts now being pursued by the United States.

Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.