Canada said it will donate four battle tanks to Ukraine’s war effort – out of an inventory of 82 German-made Leopard 2s – in an announcement that experts said reflects the relatively small capacity of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said the size of Ottawa’s donation takes into consideration the need to maintain Canada’s readiness: leaving enough tanks for Canadian troops to train at home and to meet North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments for deployments.
Canada’s tank donation to help Ukraine beat back Russia might grow “as we co-ordinate donation and sustainment plans with our allies,” she told reporters in Ottawa Thursday. As Moscow’s war enters its 12th month, Ukraine is preparing for an expected increase in Russian attacks this spring and to launch a counteroffensive of its own.
On paper at least, Canada has 112 Leopard 2 tanks, of which 82 are fighting tanks. The remaining 30 are armoured battlefield engineering vehicles with treads that are intended for erecting or demolishing obstacles, and other tasks.
The Leopard model that Canada is sending are Leopard 2 A4s, the same as what a number of other allies are providing. “That will allow us to have interoperability of training, of spare parts and ammunition,” Ms. Anand said.
Retired general Andrew Leslie, a former commander of the Canadian Army, has said he’s heard that only about 20 Canadian tanks are functioning, with the remainder in storage or waiting for spare parts to be fixed.
Retired general Rick Hillier, a former Canadian chief of the defence staff, said Thursday’s tank commitment by Ottawa is too small. Mr. Hillier, now an adviser to the Ukrainian World Congress advocacy group, said Canada should be preparing more of its tanks for Kyiv.
“I am disappointed,” Mr. Hillier said. “I think the government of Canada could have stood up and done more.”
He said Canada should urgently ready more of its tanks for Ukraine.
This country’s “operational readiness is low,” Mr. Hillier said. “It’s appallingly low.”
Defence analyst David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the announcement demonstrates the limited nature of Canada’s military capability.
“Part of the fundamental issue here is our army and the armoured part of it is a lot smaller than a lot of our allies,” Mr. Perry said. “We have a small armed forces.”
He said it’s his understanding that Ottawa is reserving a batch of tanks for its obligations to NATO under Operation Reassurance, the mission designed to reinforce the alliance’s collective defence on its eastern flank. The Department of National Defence (DND) did not specify how many tanks they were setting aside for NATO commitments.
However, Daniel LeBouthillier, head of DND media relations, said Canada currently has no Leopard tanks in Europe for NATO commitments.
Mr. Hillier said he’s heard that the Canadian military took parts from dozens of tanks to ready 11 of them for possible deployment to Europe as part of Ottawa’s NATO contribution.
Canada is sending four of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in the coming weeks. Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the move during a news conference with chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, making Canada the latest country to promise main battle tanks to Ukraine.
The Canadian Press
At least 13 countries have either promised to send tanks to Ukraine over the past month or have publicly expressed a willingness to do so. In addition to the U.S., Germany and Canada, these include Poland, Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, France and Morocco.
Most of the tanks on offer would be Leopard 2s, which have the advantage of being widely used around the world, making it easier for each country to hand over a few from its own stockpile – a much faster process than ordering new ones. The tanks contributed by Britain would be Challenger 2s, while France is considering sending Leclerc tanks. Morocco has reportedly already dispatched 20 Soviet-style tanks that are similar to the ones Ukraine is already using.
Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have previously supplied Ukraine with tanks, including some Soviet and Russian-made T-72s as well as Polish PT-91s.
Stephen Biddle, a defence-policy expert, said the new tanks will certainly help Ukraine but are not likely to change the course of the war by themselves.
Ukraine is believed to have between 800 and 950 tanks of its own. It’s unclear how many are in working condition. President Volodymyr Zelensky has been requesting between 300 and 500 from NATO countries. This means that the roughly 100 tanks committed so far will represent only a fraction of the total vehicles being used on the battlefield.
“This is important, but certainly not transformative,” said Prof. Biddle, who has previously advised top U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Tanks are an important capability, they matter a lot to the Ukrainians.
“On the margins, this will help. But it’s probably not, in and of itself, going to make the difference between a lightning offensive that retakes all of the ground the Russians hold and a stalemate. It’s not likely to be a silver bullet that transforms the military situation when it arrives.”
Steve Saideman, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa and director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, said he thinks Ottawa decided to send four tanks “because it would make the smallest dent” in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“I think it would have been smart diplomacy – and safer domestic politics – to come up with a number similar to our European allies of 10 or 12,” he said.
“Would this impact our training? Sure. But that is a modest cost compared to helping the Ukrainians get their land back and have Canada stay in its desired position as relatively significant contributor.”
Ms. Anand rejected the notion that the small tank contribution was tokenism. “Canada’s contribution is continually being assessed in terms of the ability to get the spare parts necessary, to make sure these tanks can be maintained. I want to stress that maintaining tanks is difficult especially in light of the complexity of this vehicle. This is not just like changing oil in a car. This is a need to make sure that we have continued flow of spare parts that are able to be received to maintain the tanks and then to utilize them where necessary.”
The 62 Leopard 2 tanks committed by European countries, for instance, will be enough to form two battalions; paired with an infantry battalion, this could constitute a single heavy brigade. Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive is believed to have used several brigades, Prof. Biddle said.
While the Leopard 2s and the U.S. M1 Abrams tanks promised are improvements over the Soviet T-series tanks Ukraine currently uses, the new hardware is also more complicated to maintain. Not only will Ukrainian tank crews have to be trained to drive, fight and maintain the new tanks, military planners will also have to build a supply chain to get parts to the front lines so tanks can be repaired when they break down, Prof. Biddle said.
The Abrams, for instance, requires several thousand different parts to run. Its turbine engines also run on jet fuel, meaning Ukraine will have to build pipelines to the front to keep the machines gassed up. The Leopard 2 runs on diesel but still has more complicated maintenance requirements than Ukraine’s current tanks.
“These aren’t ‘57 Chevys – the operation and maintenance is complicated,” said Prof. Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Columbia University. “It’s a much more complex piece of equipment than the Ukrainians are operating now.”
Prof. Biddle said that, if you were to take one of the new tanks into the field and use it without any maintenance, it would likely break down in about a week. This means Ukraine must set up an entire infrastructure to maintain the tanks in order for them to be useful.
The Leopard 2 tanks will likely reach Ukraine by spring, so might be used either to launch a new counteroffensive or counter any renewed Russian attacks. The M1s, meanwhile, will take longer to arrive: The U.S. said it does not have any to spare from its own arsenal so will have to have them built.
Prof. Biddle said the U.S. commitment of M1s is so small – about enough for a single battalion – that they were likely only pledged as a way to give Germany some cover for organizing the larger shipment of Leopard 2s
Michael O’Hanlon, an expert in military strategy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said that the tanks should be able to help Ukraine recapture more lost territory. Mr. O’Hanlon said he did not expect a decisive Ukrainian victory, but that Kyiv could at least continue making progress in its efforts to push Russian forces back.
The tanks are “a crucial element in combined-arms warfare that allow for longer and faster and larger movements that allow offensives to aspire to retake chunks of land measured in the tens of kilometres rather than the hundreds of metres or single kilometres,” he wrote in an e-mail.