Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"the operational need for the tank has yet again been confirmed"

Col (Ret) Chris Corrigan offers a good primer on the utility of tanks in a modern military:

Other weapon systems can provide direct fire, while light wheeled armoured vehicles out of contact with the enemy can move quicker around the battlefield on roads. However they lack the vital cross-country mobility of tanks. When engaged in a firefight supporting dismounted infantry not on roads, wheeled light armoured weapons platforms are limited to roads or terrain passable to wheels and in so doing risk being destroyed by enemy fire and not keeping up with the dismounted infantry.

They also lack the armoured protection necessary for crew survivability and, most importantly, the psychological shock action and fear effect induced by the combination of speed, mobility, track noise and size found only with tanks. Tanks make an excellent and highly responsive mobile reserve that can reinforce and save the lives of infantry in close combat with any enemy.

He also provides some telling historical context for Canada's on-again-off-again relationship with tracked armour:

By the end of the Second World War, Canada had 22 armoured regiments.

After the Second World War, the need for armour on the future battlefield was self-evident to all who had served in the army. As a result, Canada's army was equipped with the then latest Centurion tanks. In the late '60s and early '70s, the Centurions became obsolete and the Canadian government announced it would end its tank capability by 1976.

However, talks between Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and then prime minister Pierre Trudeau resulted in Canada acquiring German-built Leopard tanks to resolve the imbalance of trade between the two countries. Resolving the imbalance in trade, not the government's need to maintain an armoured fighting capability, resulted in this necessary capability being reinvigorated.

Fast forward to the '90s, the resultant peace dividend and our withdrawal from Europe, which saw a brigade being removed from the order of battle not because the world was safer but because the military had to be cut 25 per cent in the fight against the national debt. In real funding terms, the cut was closer to 35 per cent.

The most valuable part of the article comes at the end, though, to my way of thinking:

It would appear that with this latest deployment of the tank to Afghanistan, the operational need for the tank has yet again been confirmed. With the support of the new Canadian C-17s heavy strategic-lift air transport, the decision to keep the tank will be driven by operational necessity rather than transport limitations.

The need for maintaining the unique operational capability provided by the tank, and that resulted in its creation more than 90 years ago, has yet again been relearned.

But just as in 1976, most recently the army came perilously close to losing this capability. Once a capability is lost it takes time, money and extensive training to recreate.

In the future, Canadian decision-makers and the enemy may not afford the military sufficient time to recreate lost capabilities -- hence the need to ensure that capabilities are not discarded due to the prognostications of futurists.

This is a very useful piece to see in a mainstream news publication, since it covers basic but timely material that's not widely known to the Canadian public.

I just wish the photo captioners at the Hamilton Spectator would get their facts straight. First of all, "17 of the Leopard C2 tanks were sent to Afghanistan late last year but proved ineffective" is inaccurate. They proved highly effective, which is why they're being upgraded instead of withdrawn. Secondly, "Canada has leased 24 Leopard 2A6 tanks from Germany" is premature - although Col Corrigan shares some of the blame for that mistake, since he puts that speculation forward as fact in the body of his article. Nothing has actually been announced.



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