As the Canadian Army prepares to deploy a tank squadron of about 130 personnel, 15 Leopard 2 tanks, two armoured recovery vehicles and fuel, supply and other supporting vehicles to Latvia by the spring of 2024, contributing editor Ken Pole speaks with members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) about their work to deliver eight Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks and one armoured recovery vehicle to Poland, and to train Ukrainian soldiers to operate the tank.
As Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine stretches into its 16-month with no end in sight, the arrival of summer across eastern Europe accelerated plans for the long-anticipated counteroffensive. Its outcome will depend on how well the defenders deploy and use billions of dollars in donated western weaponry.
Much of the ground campaign is riding, literally and figuratively, on the effectiveness of more than 1,500 armoured vehicles, including at least 230 main battle tanks (MBT) donated or promised by NATO allies and several non-aligned states.
In an era of staggeringly effective long-range precision artillery and other evolving munitions, missiles and drones, some countries are phasing out tanks on a premise that massed armour is archaic. While there’s no gainsaying the tanks’ historical vulnerability, especially to increasingly sophisticated anti-tank munitions, western MBTs, with their more modern armour and other countermeasures, essentially have been designed since the end of the Cold War to defeat Russian tanks.
Ukrainian forces, with a large inventory of their own Soviet-era legacy tanks, have demonstrated their continued effectiveness and the importance of tanks in modern warfare. Even so, Putin’s euphemistically labelled invasion was only a couple of months old before Ukraine realized it needed better tanks.
Its initial appeals encountered resistance from the United States and some NATO allies, who feared a Russian escalation. Strategic reality eventually forced their hand and promises were made. In late January 2023, Canada committed an initial four Leopard 2A MBTs and followed up with four more a month later.
Getting the Canadian tanks to eastern Poland − where the Ukrainians trained on Polish Leopards − was one of the more straightforward elements of the program. Loaded individually onto Royal Canadian Air Force Boeing CC-177 Globemaster III transports, each tank was positioned precisely so as to not damage the floor in the aircraft’s cavernous hull before they were chained down for transport.
A Leopard tips the scale at some 55 tonnes, is almost three metres to the top of its turret, is 3.75m wide, and has an overall length of 8.49m with its gun rotated over the rear. A Globemaster’s cargo bay is 26.83m long, 5.48m wide and 3.76m high, so two could fit volumetrically. But the aircraft’s maximum payload capacity is 77.5 tonnes – a number that speaks for itself.
Offloading in Ukraine was handled by a team of 11 who arrived in February from C Squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons of Gagetown, New Brunswick, one of three Canadian Regular Force armoured regiments. Sergeant Brad Padvaiskas, second-in-command of the team, spoke with Canadian Army Today before rotating home to his Gagetown job as Troop Warrant Officer.
“We’re known as the Leopard 2 Catch Team,” he said. “We were the first tankers on the ground here in Poland and we’ve been receiving the tanks as they come in off the planes.”
Deliveries included spares and training simulators and the team began by “making sure everything went where it needed to go, and the last final checks were done on the tanks.”
Padvaiskas said his “phenomenal” Ukrainian trainees were “soaking up the knowledge as fast as they can,” including how to change the tanks’ V-12 twin-turbo diesel engine, generating nearly 1,500 horsepower and capable of pushing the tank to 70 kilometres an hour. A “switched-on” crew could do the job in 30 minutes, but it pays to be careful because the cost of replacement parts can easily run to six figures.
He and his crew interacted with several other countries’ maintenance trainers, in particular Norwegians, and he lauded their Polish hosts for letting the foreign trainers work “in their house with all their maintenance facilities.” And while his unit didn’t have a dedicated interpreter, he laughed that “you can really get your point across with Google Translate.”
Introduced in 1979, the 2A4 is the fourth of eight generations of the Leopard 2 platform developed by Germany’s Kraus-Maffei Wegmann GmbH & Company and manufactured until 1992. Canada acquired 80 2A4s from the Netherlands in 2007 and 20 from Germany as those countries downsized their massive Cold War fleets. The donations to Ukraine left the Canadian Army with 34 of the 2A4s and 20 each of its upgraded 2A4Ms and 2A6Ms.
As the conflict moved into May 2023, Ukraine’s aging tank arsenal was bolstered not only by the Canadian tanks, but also donations of 2A4s from Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain. Germany donated 2A6s as well as older Leopard 1s in partnership with several other countries. Factor in donations of British Challenger 2s as well as U.S. M1 Abrams and Ukraine’s hopes for battlefield success have become increasingly credible.
But preparing Ukrainians to fight with their new platforms has required intensive training, not only on their more advanced technologies, but also on modern tactics and ongoing maintenance.
The 2A4, the most common variant, has a 120-millimetre smooth bore gun developed by Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall AG and capable of firing a variety of target-specific rounds at close range or as far out as four kilometres.
The hull armour is a combination of steel, aluminum and composite materials – protection against kinetic penetrators and shaped-charge warheads as well as mines and improvised explosive devices. Its improved turret features titanium/tungsten armour. The tank also features an automated fire-and-explosion suppression system and, in a critical design difference from many Russian tanks, ammunition is stored separately from the loader/gunner. Thousands of the old Soviet tanks, lacking blowout panels, have been destroyed on Ukraine’s battlefield, turrets popping off when ammunition in their autoloaders explodes.
Under the auspices of Operation Unifier, which began in April 2015 in response to Ukraine’s appeal for help in dealing with separatists in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces personnel on rotations have trained more than 36,000 Ukrainians, including at least 2,300 since the invasion began.
Canada’s tank-training in Poland was overseen by Captain Brittney Shki-Giizis, a Troop Leader with the Edmonton-based Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). Its motto, “Perseverance”, was certainly reflected in getting the Ukrainians ready for the rumoured counteroffensive.
“They were experienced, knowledgeable and definitely motivated to learn,” Shki-Giizis told Canadian Army Today shortly before being rotated home. Having deployed in February, she and her team used Polish tanks to prepare their battle-hardened Ukrainian trainees for whatever they might encounter in trying to push back regular Russian forces and Wagner Group mercenaries.
“The biggest challenge was definitely the language barrier” as the Ukrainians were put through intensive training cycles. “Our Ukrainian interpreters have been absolutely fantastic,” said Shki-Giizis, “but as civilians they don’t have a lot of exposure to the military language, so we also have to find ways to translate in ways that they understand.”
That training included live-fire, with each crew getting 40 to 50 rounds during their course. They used rounds with concrete heads that mimicked the ballistic qualities of the real thing.
As well as practising on the firing range, learning new tactics, and employing newer onboard technologies than they’ve previously been exposed to, the Ukrainians have been trained on field maintenance. “Our drivers do a lot of maintenance so it’s pretty easy for them to pass on that knowledge,” Shki-Giizis explained.
Overall training has been essentially on two tracks: one for the driver/maintainer and the other for the commander, loader and gunner.
Like Padvaiskas’ group, Shki-Giizis’ team of about 20 shared their experiences with their Norwegian and Polish allies. “We sit down every week together and compare what we’ve done and look forward to the next week,” she said. “We try to standardize, to keep our training as similar as possible. We’ve also learned a lot from each other, the three nations coming together. We were able to work at the best practices each of us brought to the table. Because of that, all three of us are able to influence the best possible training we could provide.”
A typical training day for the Army crew began at 0800. Students arrived 30 minutes later and were split into groups, and their training continued until about 1800.
“Depending on the day, that could involve work on the simulators, practising manoeuvres if you’re a driver or a gunner, for practising drills and really getting to know the system,” said Shki-Giizis. “Later in the course, we rotate one day on range, shooting X number of rounds, the next day would focus on tactical manoeuvres to help the crew to work as a unit, and the day after that with simulators and basics to really hammer down the foundation of being a tanker.”