Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
Fifteen years ago, I died in a Leopard 2 tank.
Fortunately for me, it was only a simulated death. I was riding in an open turret during a mock battle at the German Army Combat Training Centre near Berlin. It was an experience that impressed upon me how terrifying these machines can be.
The 62-tonne behemoth charged across the countryside at 70 kilometres per hour, knocking trees down like matchsticks.
As the tank heaved over the terrain, the turret swivelled above the tank’s body to maintain a stable view for the gunner. Had I slipped from my perch, I easily would have lost my legs.
One of the crew members fired off canisters of white phosphorus to conceal our position. A speck of it landed on the forearm of my colleague Rob Huebert, who was perched in the turret of another tank, causing him hours of pain.
We never saw the Leopard 2 tanks from the other “team,” which were also firing off white phosphorus and may have been three or four kilometres away.
The advanced sensors and targeting systems of a Leopard 2 preclude any need to fight at close quarters. On the battlefield, it is an apex predator, which is why 21 countries operate them.
My own part in the battle ended abruptly after just 10 minutes, when a computerized female voice came across my headphones. “Sie sind tot,” the voice explained. “You are dead.”
We were fighting with lasers instead of depleted uranium shells, and a gunner from the other team had ended my brief engagement with tank warfare.
Prof. Huebert and I were in Germany as part of a delegation of Canadian politicians and defence experts. The mock battle was part of a sales pitch aimed at persuading Canada to buy more Leopard 2 tanks to help push the Taliban back in Afghanistan.
Thanks to then-defence minister Gordon O’Connor, a former tank commander, Canada acquired around 100 Leopard 2 tanks between 2007 and 2009.
But then, the Taliban switched from stand-and-fight to guerrilla tactics. They adopted a new weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device, which is highly effective against tanks. Most of a tank’s armour is located in the front and side sections, not underneath; a problem that cannot be fixed because of the low-slung design.
As a result, most of Canada’s Leopard 2 tanks have seen little service.
Yet Ukraine is not Afghanistan. Leopard 2s were in fact designed to fight Soviet tanks on the hills and plains of Eastern Europe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky knows this and has been requesting the terrifying machines from allies for months.
This of course includes pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to give Ukraine some of our tanks, where they would be put to immediate and much needed use, instead of sitting in storage.
Earlier requests to allies were refused because of concerns about prompting a Russian escalation. But it’s becoming clear, 11 months into the war, that Russian President Vladimir Putin will neither attack a NATO member state nor resort to tactical nuclear weapons.
And so, some of Ukraine’s allies have changed their position on the tank issue. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says that the United Kingdom, which does not operate Leopard 2 tanks, will send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. Poland and Finland are willing to donate some of their Leopard 2 tanks, provided that Germany, which has a veto over onward transfers, approves this action.
The Germans, too, are now coming around. Last week, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said that the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine should be allowed. An announcement is expected this Friday, when Ukraine’s allies meet in Germany to discuss their latest pledges of military support.
While Canada will send 200 more armoured personnel carriers, we should go further and offer some of our Leopard 2 tanks. Unlike Poland and Finland, which border Russia, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever need the tanks again – the tanks were built for a purpose, and that purpose is now in Ukraine.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau was asked about this issue. “We will look at all the requests from Ukraine but we’re not there yet for the Leopard 2 tanks,” he said. “We’re here to provide Ukraine what it needs so they can beat Russia.”
Ukrainian soldiers need Leopard 2 tanks, right now, to fight in actual battles. Yet here in Canada, we’re still acting like spectators along for a thrilling but safe ride.