Maintain or replace? That's the question for Canada's tank fleet.

Canada is deploying tanks overseas for the first time in more than a decade, but the future of the country’s armored fleet remains uncertain.

The first of 15 Canadian Leopard 2 tanks is expected to arrive in Latvia in mid-November as part of efforts to bolster NATO’s presence in the Eastern European nation. While this is happening, the Canadian military is working to determine how best to maintain and support the aging tank fleet while also trying to decide whether to replace the platforms.

According to Defense Ministry spokesperson Jessica Lamirande, an estimated 1.5 billion Canadian dollars (1.1 billion US dollars) will go toward the new long-term support contract for the Leopard. This contract will include maintenance and support services for the Leopard 2 fleet until the end of the tanks’ planned service life, currently scheduled for 2035.

“The scope of work will include key services such as maintenance support, necessary upgrades, supply chain management, engineering support and technical support for the Canadian Leopard 2 fleet,” he said.

The Canadian Army had 82 Leopard 2 tanks but donated eight to Ukraine in the middle of its fight against the Russian invasion.

Canada has identified German company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann as the sole supplier for the long-term contract.

“We expect the contract to be awarded in spring 2024,” Lamirande stated.

Additionally, the Canadian Army briefed industry representatives on April 3 in Ottawa on a proposed plan to modernize the Leopard fleet.

Army Lt. Col. Chloeann Summerfield said extending the tank’s life would cost more than C$850 million and address obsolescence issues and technological improvements.

The project is in its early phases but would prioritize improvements to the protection, surveillance, target acquisition, firepower and mobility of the Leopard 2, Summerfield explained to industry officials.

According to the presentation obtained by Defense News, the Army would also seek cooperation and a common configuration for these upgraded vehicles with other users of the Leopard.

According to the presentation, the request for bids to the industry for the life extension will be published around 2028, and the first deployment of the improved cars will begin in 2030.

Summerfield said one consideration is the “limited budget” of the project.

According to Canadian defense observers, financial obstacles will also influence Canada’s decision on whether to purchase new battle tanks to replace the Leopard 2 fleet.

Martin Shadwick, a Canadian military and defense policy professor at Toronto’s York University, said the military has had a contentious relationship with tanks.

In October 2003, Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier, then commander of the Army, announced that Canada would retire the Leopard tanks from service and would acquire the Stryker Mobile Gun System, a wheeled vehicle manufactured in the United States, Shadwick said. At the time, Hillier said the Army’s Leopards had served their purpose, but their usefulness in the war was limited since the enemy was no longer Russia but terrorists in austere environments like Afghanistan.

However, several years later, the new Army leadership reversed course and sent Leopard tanks to Afghanistan in 2006. Canadian military leaders fighting in that country had requested the tanks, as their heavy armor provided more protection against explosive devices. improvised

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian tanks have been limited to training exercises in the country. The Canadian government has committed to purchasing a limited number of new tanks to replace the eight Leopards it donated to Ukraine over the past two years. In February 2023, then-Defense Minister Anita Anand announced the acquisition plan, but it has not yet gone ahead.

Maintain or replace?A Royal Canadian Air Force CC-177 Globemaster delivers a Leopard 2A4 tank to Poland on March 17, 2023.

The office of Bill Blair, the current Defense Minister, did not want to give specific details about this possible purchase. Daniel Minden, Blair’s press secretary, said: “Capability requirements are being reviewed by the Army to ensure capability replenishment and interoperability. “Plans and timelines are yet to be determined.”

For his part, Shadwick does not expect the government to purchase new tanks in the near future, including those intended to replace the Leopards now in Ukraine. “There is a real lack of funding for procurement, and new tanks are very low on the Canadian Forces priority list,” he said.

Former defense procurement chief Alan Williams agreed that large military purchases, such as F-35 fighter jets and new Canadian surface combatants, leave little funding for tanks.

Williams said the annual budget for defense equipment procurement amounts to C$5 billion, but much, if not all, will go to the surface combatant fleet. Surface combatants are estimated to cost C$100 billion over the next 20 years.

Canada has also committed to spending C$40 billion to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command – a figure that includes the purchase of F-35s – and another C$6 billion on new P-8 patrol aircraft.

“I don’t see how the Army can even contemplate acquiring new tanks,” Williams said. “Many potential equipment projects will be seriously affected by programs already committed by the government.”

David Pugliese