Canada sends tanks to Afghanistan
Officials had said Leopards were readied for exercises; move marks first time vehicles will be sent into combat
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, September 09, 2006
CREDIT: The Canadian Press
Canada's fleet of Leopard tanks, like this one shown at CFB Edmonton, underwent a $145-million upgrade in the late 1990s to equip the vehicles with new computers and heat-sensing gear to help improve their fighting capability.
Less than three weeks after it denied it was sending Leopard tanks to Afghanistan, the Canadian military is set to ship as many as 20 of the heavy-tracked armoured vehicles to Kandahar to provide additional protection for its troops.
Although the tanks have been used once overseas on a peace support mission in Kosovo in the 1990s, this is the first time they will be sent into an actual combat situation.
A warning order was issued earlier this week to the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) in Edmonton to prepare for the deployment. Twenty tanks are being readied for the operation and about 300 personnel will be heading to Afghanistan.
The Leopards will be used for escort duty for Canadian convoys, which have continually come under attack by the Taliban, government sources said.
In addition, some soldiers have suggested the presence of tanks would make insurgents think twice about attacking Canadian convoys.
The decision to ratchet up Canada's force comes as military officers acknowledge they underestimated the resilience of the Taliban. NATO has been asking for more equipment and soldiers from its allies to deal with the increasing threat in southern Afghanistan.
But government sources said the decision behind sending the tanks to Afghanistan is to provide more protection for Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Teams, rather than use the armoured vehicles directly in combat against the Taliban.
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor has said he plans to put more emphasis on the teams that provide medical and humanitarian help to Afghan civilians. Part of that is increasing the protection for those teams that use light-armoured vehicles and armoured trucks called G-Wagons.
"The protection levels aren't adequate over there," said one source.
Besides convoy escort, the tanks would be used to rush to the aid of light-armoured vehicles that have been ambushed by the Taliban.
Canada has more than 2,000 military personnel in Afghanistan.
It will take at least a month to get the Leopards over to Afghanistan, but that deployment could be sped up if the U.S. military ships the vehicles using its large transport aircraft. Otherwise, the tanks will be sent by ship.
In the late 1990s, the Canadian military spent $145 million to upgrade its 114 Leopards with new computers and heat-sensing equipment to improve their fighting capability.
On Aug. 24, the Citizen reported that military maintenance crews were working overtime to prepare the service's Leopard tanks for deployment and several soldiers told the newspaper the vehicles were headed to Afghanistan. The Canadian Forces, however, said the tanks were destined for an exercise in Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alta.
Besides having heavier armour than the existing Canadian vehicles in Afghanistan, the Leopards are equipped to mount devices and plows capable of clearing mines.
The Leopards, capable of a maximum speed of 65 km/h, will not have trouble keeping up with the convoys. The Canadian tanks have a crew of four and were built in Germany. They are armed with a 105-millimetre gun.
The tank has made a comeback in the army, which had been in the process of switching over to an entirely wheeled fleet of armoured vehicles. Army commander Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie has made it clear he wants troops to retain their skills in working with tanks.
The Leopards were in the process of being mothballed or sold off, but with the Afghan war heating up, army commanders put a halt to that process in May.
Canadian and NATO troops, along with the Afghan army, are currently in battle with an estimated 700 Taliban near Kandahar City. According to NATO officials, the force taking part in Operation Medusa is closing the circle around the besieged insurgents. There have, however, been reports that fresh reinforcements of Taliban are moving into the area to fight the Canadians.
Five Canadian soldiers were killed over the Labour Day long weekend during Operation Medusa. One died when U.S. warplanes mistakenly opened fire on a group of Canadian troops. Four others were killed in battles with the Taliban.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006