Well before then Defence Minister Anita Anand announced in June that Canada would be sending a squadron of Leopard 2A4M main battle tanks to support the Canadian-led multinational battle group in Latvia, members of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) were preparing to move.
“There were some early indicators that this was on the horizon,” said Major Matthew Shumka, the officer commanding B Squadron.
Even as the squadron began its high readiness training with 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group last year, there was an inkling they could be deployed. The Army was well into discussions about how to scale the battle group to the strength of a brigade and which capabilities Canada would need to contribute.
Though tanks were already part of the formation, there were signs Canadian armour squadrons might need to augment the modest force of Polish PT-91, Italian Ariete, and Spanish Leopard 2E main battle tanks.
“We were already in our high readiness cycle” when the commitment was made, said Shumka. “We completed our build effectively with Exercise Maple Resolve, but we had started last September building with our own training initiatives, and then jumped in full steam as of January this year.”
Initially, the task was assigned to A Squadron. But when the government in early 2023 pledged to provide eight Leopard 2A4 tanks to Ukraine, and a team to Poland to help train Ukrainian soldiers, A Squadron took the first rotation and B Squadron assumed the mission to Latvia.
Over the summer and early fall, teams of B Squadron members — sometimes as many as 24 — shuttled between home base in Edmonton and the Army Equipment Fielding Centre in Montreal, overseeing the movement of 15 Leopard 2A4M tanks, two armoured recovery vehicles, support vehicles, fuel, supplies and other equipment. The tanks and other vehicles, some of which came from Gagetown, were then put through an extensive maintenance, upgrade, and inspection regime, including paint work, to declare them operationally ready and configured for shipping.
“It has been a deliberate process,” said Shumka of what he called “a complicated task” that required some support from the Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at 202 Workshop Depot to complete component repairs on some tanks before they could be loaded onto a ship.
The upgrades included adding armour plates last used in Afghanistan to some of the Leopards.
The eight Leopards provided to Ukraine were transported by a CC-177 Globemaster III, and met in Poland by a “Leopard 2 Catch Team” from C Squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), which prepared the tanks for training and then guided the first crop of Ukrainian students through how to operate them.
In October, B squadron began departing for Latvia, some members to the Port of Riga to meet and escort the equipment and vehicles, the rest directly to Camp Adazi. In total, the squadron consists of about 130 personnel, 10 of whom will serve with Task Force Latvia and other national support elements to augment logistics support.
“Logistics are fairly exhausting and extensive for a tank squadron naturally,” noted Shumka, who previously served in Latvia as the officer commanding the Combat Support Company in 2020, when the battle group was led by the Strathcona’s.
“As we roll in, we are trying not to draw off resources already in place that may be stressed to their own capacity. We have a very robust maintenance team coming in. We’re going to add value, not pull from it.”
The squadron’s mandate as Roto 0 is to establish the Canadian tank footprint, performing initial maintenance and inspections as each Leopard arrives at Camp Adazi, and then get them operational with manoeuvre tasks on the roads and training ranges. Once complete, the Strathcona’s will hand over to C Squadron, RCD, early next year, who “will get them validated with the battle group” during a NATO Combat Readiness Evaluation (CREVAL), a capstone exercise to confirm the readiness of the multinational battle group, he said.
As the first on the ground, though, B Squadron will get to set up the purpose-built and refurbished maintenance, accommodation and headquarters facilities to their liking. “If we are going to have that persistent presence, it is great for our regiment to shape how this squadron is going to be laid out,” Shumka admitted. “By going first, we can get that ball rolling and shape it.”
Some members of B Squadron will be incorporated into C Squadron next year and will form the second full rotation, serving with the battle group for six months beginning next summer.
The Spanish have reached out to offer any help if needed, he added. Having a variant of the Leopard A4M already in theatre “really helps us.” The squadron is bringing extra tooling and other maintenance equipment, but if some shipping containers are not readily available, Spanish assistance to get the tanks operational will be invaluable.
Members of the squadron conducted a “tactical reconnaissance” of the facilities and available maintenance support over the summer, and “any [additional] lessons from the Spanish will definitely help us,” he said.
While the leadership of B Squadron has a mix of operational experiences, including previous deployments to Latvia, most junior members are marking their first deployment. “There’s a lot of youthful anticipation,” said Shumka, who deployed in 2016 to Northern Iraq under Operation Impact and worked within the U.S. lead multinational Division Headquarters as the Combine Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve J35 Operations Officer.
“People are eager to go in, but we’ve also got that experience to check our realities and make sure we have a deliberate approach to this.”
Introduced in 1979, the 2A4 is the fourth of eight generations of the Leopard 2 platform developed by Germany’s Kraus-Maffei Wegmann and manufactured until 1992. Canada acquired 80 2A4s from the Netherlands in 2007 and 20 from Germany as those countries downsized their Cold War fleets. The donations to Ukraine have left the Canadian Army with 34 of the 2A4s and 20 each of the upgraded 2A4Ms and 2A6Ms.