Almost lost in the media firestorm generated by the Senate scandal has been the grinding rumour mill concerning the possible cancellation of a major defence procurement project.
For the past few weeks, there has been an awful lot of smoke generated by government and industry insiders that the $2-billion acquisition of 108 close combat vehicles is about to be scrapped.
Fuelling this speculation is the fact that Ottawa has requested that the army reduce its budget by close to 22 per cent, and that adds up to the roughly $2 billion needed to buy the new vehicles. Rather than cut training or personnel budgets, it seems a no-brainer to simply cancel the purchase of a capability our army has never possessed.
However, that $2 billion is illusory, since the acquisition cost is approximately $700 million and the rest of the money is for in-service support over 25 years, plus infrastructure and training costs.
The projected role of the vehicle is that of a heavily armoured infantry fighting vehicle that would complement our fleet of Leopard 2 battle tanks or operate independently in medium- to low-intensity conflict. Such a tactical doctrine is commonplace with our NATO allies.
In the U.S., Abrams tanks are directly supported by Bradley infantry fighting vehicles; Britain’s Challenger tanks deploy alongside the Warrior; the German army’s Leopard 2s work in tandem with their new Pumas; and the French Leclerc tanks operate closely with their infantry fighting vehicle.
A decade ago, then-commander of the Canadian army, retired general Rick Hillier, declared that main battle tanks were “Cold War relics” when he announced in 2003 that Canada was going to build around a mobile gun system, but the vehicle — a light armoured vehicle chassis mounted with a large-calibre 105-mm gun — proved to be a failed hybrid.
Acquisition of the vehicles was quietly killed off when the realities of the combat situation in Kandahar proved that, contrary to Hillier’s assertion, the protection and firepower of main battle tanks made them a very useful piece of kit in the modern counter-insurgency battlefield.
If battle tanks proved their worth in Afghanistan, then the Canadian army would need to purchase a fleet of additional vehicles designed to properly support them. In the summer of 2009, at the height of Canada’s combat engagement in Afghanistan, the Conservative government announced its intention to purchase 108 of the close combat vehicles.
As with all too many defence procurement projects, the program was plagued with problems, delays and setbacks.
The worst stumbling block came in 2012 when, after stringent testing “to destruction” of all the submitted vehicles, all contenders were declared to be non-compliant to Canadian standards, despite the fact that two of the contenders have already proven their mettle in operational theatres with allied nations.
By this juncture, Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan was concluded and a budget-conscious army high command and Conservative government could have easily used the pretext of non-compliant submissions to squash the purchase.
However, since the decision was taken to upgrade and refit a fleet of 42 Leopard 2 tanks as the primary building blocks of the army, Canada needs to ensure they can be fully supported. And so the decision was made to restart the program.
Once again, a new batch of vehicles was retested to destruction and a re-evaluation of the contenders was completed this past spring. To date, the Conservative government has yet to announce the winner — let alone issue a contract.
This lengthy delay has, of course, been fuelling the rampant rumours that the acquisition program is for the chop. However, the international politics of such a cancellation are not that simple.
Despite all the chest thumping at National Defence Headquarters at having deployed and sustained a battle group in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, the truth is we only managed to do that through the generosity of our NATO allies.
The Germans loaned us their Leopard 2 tanks, the Americans provided us with howitzers and used Chinook helicopters, the Dutch ferried our troops around in helicopters, and even Poland lent us a hand with air transport.
Given the amount of international investment in these vehicle bids to date, Canada’s failure to invest in a combat capability could result in a few closed doors the next time we go hat in hand to beg NATO counterparts for much-needed hardware from their inventories.