Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hilliers about face ... what does he know for sure?

Canadian military hunts for new tanks
CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen February 11, 2007

As it prepares to deal with another spring offensive by insurgents in Afghanistan, Canada is trying to lease state-of-the-art Leopard tanks from Germany.

Defence sources told the Ottawa Citizen Saturday that Canada wants to lease 20 Leopard A6M tanks from the German army. The tanks, which have improved protection against landmines and other enemy weapons, could be shipped to Afghanistan as early as the spring if the deal is approved, sources said.

The German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, will also report on Monday that Canada wants to buy 80 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany as well as lease the other 20 Leopards.

According to another European news agency, Agence France-Presse, the German government is looking at approving the Canadian request. "The ministry is in principle favourable to this request," a German Defence Department spokesman told AFP.

The Canadian military has already shipped a small number of Leopard C2s to Afghanistan. But the Canadian Forces has concerns about the level of protection those tanks can provide for their crews. In addition, there are concerns about whether there will be enough spare parts for the older Canadian tanks, according to sources.

The proposed German deal would also include an ample supply of parts for the armoured vehicles.

A defence source said Canada's proposal to the German government, if accepted, could shave years off acquiring a more modern tank for use in Afghanistan. If Canada were to upgrade its existing Leopards it would take about two years, the source said.

A Defence Department official said Saturday that only limited information about the Canada-German Leopard proposal was available. "No decision has been taken but the Canadian Forces are constantly assessing their requirements for operations," said Tanya Barnes, a Canadian Defence Department spokeswoman.

In the fall, Canadian military officials sent out feelers to different countries who might have used Leopard 2s for sale. Included among those were Holland and Germany. In addition, Canada wanted details about the availability of spare parts for the tanks.

Over the last year there has been a major about-face in the Canadian military's view of the usefulness of tanks.

Last fall, after originally denying that it was going to send Leopards to Afghanistan, the military confirmed the armoured vehicles were indeed headed for that south Asia war zone. "Tanks produce a certain amount of shock action," army commander Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie said at the press conference confirming the deployment of the Leopards. "They can be extraordinarily intimidating."

In the late 1990s the Canadian Forces spent $145 million to equip the tanks with new computers and heat-sensing equipment to improve their fighting capability.

The tanks are also seen as being useful in Kandahar since they can move over irrigation ditches and other obstacles that have stopped wheeled light armoured vehicles.

But three years ago Gen. Rick Hillier, then army commander, labeled the Leopards as a "millstone" around the neck of the service. Several months later Hillier wrote an article for the Citizen criticizing retired officers who wanted to keep the Leopard tanks in the army's inventory. He called those officers "armchair strategists" who didn't understand the changing face of warfare.

"Tanks are a perfect example of extremely expensive systems that sit in Canada because they are inappropriate to the operations we conduct daily around the world," Hillier wrote at the time. The general is currently the chief of the defence staff.

As they came to grips with the war in Afghanistan, senior military leaders changed their minds and turned to the tank to provide increased firepower and protection.

Last year, the army put on hold a plan to dispose of many of its tanks. But by that point the Defence department had blown up, sold or given away a little less than half of the army's fleet of 114 Leopards.