Canada Has Given Up Trying To Find A Good Home For Its Retired Leopard Tanks

A possible sale to Jordan has apparently fallen through and there are few other buyers who could meet the country's human rights standards.

Bill Graveland/AP

Canada is throwing in the towel when it comes to trying to find a suitable buyer for dozens of aging Leopard C2 main battle tanks. A potential deal to sell them to Jordan has apparently fallen through amid that country’s own plans to trim back its heavy armored forces and now the bulk of the C2s look destined for the junk heap.

Canada’s Global News was first to report on the development after learning of the negotiations with the Jordanian government through its source’s and the country’s access to information law. Canadian authorities have been trying to sell off the tanks, upgraded versions of the examples it first bought from Germany in the late 1970s, since 2015.

“No firm buyer was found and the department is assessing alternate disposal options,” Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesperson for the Canadian Department of National Defense, told Global News. “The last option would be to destroy the tanks.”

Another possibility would be to turn them into training targets for the Canadian Army. Of the approximately 50 remaining C2s, 11 will also be put into museums or on static display outside Canadian Forces facilities, according to Le Bouthillier.

Skaarup.HA via Wikimedia

A Leopard C2 tank, without a common add-on armor package, already on display in Canada.

Otherwise, Canada seems unlikely to find another interested buyer. The C2s are based on the Leopard 1, which Porsche first designed for what was initially a multi-national tank program that first began in 1956. The Canadians began receiving their vehicles in 1978, at which time they were known as C1s. These were equivalent to the Leopard 1A3 variant, which had improved armor and sights over earlier types.

In 2000, Canada put 114 of its 127 C1s through an upgrade program, with the resulting vehicles becoming known as the C2. The modifications included replacing the entire turret with the design found on the Leopard 1A5, the final production type, which included a version of the day- and night-capable fire control system found on the more modern Leopard 2 series.

Darkone via Wikimedia

One of the Leopard 1 prototypes, which Porsche built in 1960, in a museum in Germany.

German manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) had also designed this larger turret to accommodate a 120mm gun instead of the Leopard 1’s original 105mm cannon. KMW and its customers both found that this was no more cost-effective than simply buying Leopard 2s, which had this weapon as standard. As a result, the Leopard 1A6 program came to a close after a single prototype. The larger, 62-ton Leopard 2 also had the advantage of being faster and better protected than its 42-ton predecessor.

The Canadian C2s could also accommodate the Modular Expandable Armor System (MEXAS) from German firm IBD Deisenroth Engineering. Canada had deployed a small number of C1s with this same add-on armor package to Kosovo in 1999 on a trial basis and subsequently made it a standard option on the C2s.

In the end, the C2s only ever saw combat in Afghanistan, with units deploying to the country between 2006 and 2011. That experience might also help explain why the Canadians were unable to find a buyer for the remaining tanks. Within a year of the first deployment, Canada’s government had made the decision to purchase new Leopard 2s as a replacement.

The most immediate issue was the Afghan heat, which was sweltering for crews in tanks with no air conditioning that Canada had originally expected would primarily fight against a Soviet invasion of more temperate parts of Europe. The C2s eventually received a cooling system to mitigate this issue.

Though more comfortable than before, the tankers still had to contend with Taliban rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. Canada lost three MEXAS-equipped C2s while engaged in Afghanistan and another 15 reportedly suffered some type of damage. By the end of 2007, the Canadians had already secured a short-term lease on 20 Leopard 2s to supplement the older tanks as a stopgap measure ahead getting the ones they had purchased from KMW.

“This government will not hesitate to provide the Canadian Forces whatever equipment it requires to carry out the difficult tasks we ask them to perform,” then-Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor said in April 2007. “They [the Leopard 2s] are state-of-the-art.”

The Canadian Press, MURRAY BREWSTER/AP

A Canadian Leopard 2 in Afghanistan in 2011.

With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine that a country like Jordan, situated in the heart of the Middle East, which faces potential threats, such as ISIS terrorists, armed with improvised explosive devices and suicide car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and guided anti-tank missiles, would be inclined to pick up the aging, second-hand tanks. The country does have an active and capable domestic defense industry that has extensive experience upgrading main battle tanks, but it’s not clear how cost effective it would have been to put the dated C2s through such an update program.

On top of that, in February 2018, the Jordanian Armed Forces revealed plans to retire their own larger Challenger 1-based Al Hussein tanks in favor of a mixed, more flexible armored force. The Jordanian Army eventually plans to field a force made up of upgraded American-made M60A3s, known Phoenixes, along with Iveco Centauro 8x8 wheeled 105mm assault guns. This course of action would almost certainly have killed any prospects Canada had for a deal for good.

With Jordan no longer an option, it’s hard to say who else might have necessarily been interested in acquiring a Leopard 1-based tank that is increasingly hard to maintain. There are only six countries in the world that still operate any variants of this type. In October 2017, Brazil reportedly visited Italy and Switzerland to discuss buying retired Leopard 1A5s from those countries to augment its existing fleet.

The other problem is that both Canadian and German officials would have to approve any final sale, which could have made it difficult for Canada to offload the tanks to any country with a questionable human rights record. The governments in both countries both espouse a major commitment to human rights, but have increasingly come under fire for exporting arms to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are respectively involved in controversial interventions in Yemen and Syria.

Exército Brasileiro

A Brazilian Leopard 1A5 tank.

Difficulties in securing export approval from the Germans had already put the brakes on a Belgian plan to deliver Leopard 1A5s to Lebanon. As of 2010, the tanks had yet to arrive and it’s unclear if they ever did. The Belgian M113-based Armored Infantry Fighting Vehicles (AIFV) did make it to the Lebanese military, since those vehicles only required approval from the U.S. government, which has been actively supplying weapons and other military equipment to Lebanon itself.

“The marketplace for us to sell and basically keep within most of our policies to not abet countries that are, shall we say, problematic, is pretty limited,” Rob Huebert, a senior research fellow at the University of Calgary’s Center for Military and Strategic Analysis, told Global News. The Canadian government appears to have arrived at much the same conclusion.

Unless the situation changes significantly in the coming months, it looks like the remains of Canada’s Leopard C2 fleet is finally headed for the firing range or the scrap yard.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com