VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada is deploying tanks on an overseas mission for the first time in more than a decade, but the future for the country’s armored fleet remains uncertain.

The first of 15 Canadian Leopard 2 tanks are expected to arrive in Latvia in mid-November as part of efforts to shore up NATO’s presence in that Eastern European nation. While that is taking place, work is underway in the Canadian Army to determine how best to maintain and support the aging tank fleet while trying to decide whether to replace the platforms.

An estimated CA$1.5 billion (U.S. $1.1 billion) will go toward the new Leopard long-term support contract, according to Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande. That contract will see maintenance and support services for the Leopard 2 fleet in place until the tanks’ forecast end of life, currently scheduled for 2035.

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

The Canadian Army had 82 Leopard 2 main battle tanks, but donated eight to Ukraine amid its fight against a Russian invasion.

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

“We expect a contract award by spring 2024,” Lamirande said.

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

Army Lt. Col. Chloeann Summerfield noted the tank life extension would cost more than CA$850 million and deal with obsolescence issues as well as technology improvements.

The project is in its early stages but would prioritize improvements to the Leopard 2′s protection, surveillance, target acquisition, firepower and mobility, Summerfield told industry officials.

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

A request for bids from industry for the life extension effort is to be issued around 2028, with the first fielding of the upgraded tanks starting in 2030, the presentation noted.

One of the considerations is a “limited budget” for the project, Summerfield said.

Financial barriers will also impact Canada’s decision on whether to buy new tanks to replace the Leopard 2 fleet, according to Canadian defense observers.

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

In October 2003, Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier, then-commander of the Army, announced Canada was retiring Leopard tanks from service and would purchase the U.S.-made Stryker Mobile Gun System, a wheeled vehicle, Shadwick noted. At the time, Hillier said the Army’s Leopards had served their purpose but were of limited use in warfare, as the enemy was no longer Russia but rather terrorists in austere environments like Afghanistan.

However, several years later, the Army’s new leadership reversed course, instead sending 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 improvised explosive devices.

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian tanks have been limited to training exercises at home. The Canadian government has committed to buying a limited number of new tanks to replace the eight Leopards it donated to Ukraine over the past two years. In February 2023, then-Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the acquisition plan, but it’s yet to move forward.

The office of Bill Blair, the current defense minister, would not provide specific details about that potential purchase. Daniel Minden, Blair’s press secretary, pointed out that “capability requirements are being reviewed by the Army to ensure capability replenishment and interoperability. Plans and timelines remain to be determined.”

For his part, Shadwick doesn’t expect the government will buy new tanks in the near future, including those meant to replace the Leopards now in Ukraine. “There is a real lack of funding for procurement, and new tanks are way down the list of priorities for the Canadian forces,” he said.

Former defense procurement chief Alan Williams agreed, noting major military purchases, such as F-35 fighter jets and the new Canadian Surface Combatant ships, leave little funds left over for tanks.

The annual budget for defense equipment acquisitions is CA$5 billion, but much, if not all, will be earmarked for the fleet of surface combatants, Williams told Defense News. The surface combatants are estimated to cost CA$100 billion over the next 20 years.

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

“I can’t see how the Army can even contemplate the acquisition of new tanks,” Williams said. “A lot of potential equipment projects will be seriously affected by programs already committed to by government.”

David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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