Armor: Different Strokes For Different Folks

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June 25, 2009: Canadian officers in Afghanistan are having a hard time convincing their American counterparts to bring some M-1 tanks along with the additional combat brigades arriving this year. The Canadians have found tanks very useful while fighting the Taliban. In addition to being immune to enemy fire, the tanks can smash through the walls that surround the many family compounds that dot the Afghan countryside. There is also the fear factor. The Canadian tanks are scary, as well as deadly. When the Canadian troops have a tank along, the Taliban are usually very reluctant to fight.

During the rainy season, tanks are often the only way to get tracks or wheeled armored vehicles out of the mid. The tanks can also serve as an armored towing vehicle, to haul heavy, but disabled, vehicles, back to a base, through hostile territory. But the American commanders are reluctant to add the heavy logistical load even a few dozen tanks would impose. U.S. M-1 tanks have to be brought in one-at-a-time via C-17 transports, and consume enormous amounts of fuel. Moreover, many American commanders do not believe the tanks would be available for many missions. The American brigades will be operating over a wide swatch of territory, and have fewer opportunities to use the tanks. The Canadians have fewer helicopters, so they use the roads more often, and find having a tank along can, literally, be a lifesaver.

It was three years ago, Canada sent 17 of its Leopard 1 tanks to Afghanistan, to give Canadian troops there some extra firepower against the Taliban. But as the warm weather approached, the lack of air conditioning in these elderly tanks became a major problem for the crews. The age of the tanks was a factor as well, so Canada made arrangements with Germany, the manufacturer of the Leopard, to lease twenty of the most modern version of the tank, the Leopard 2A6M.

Canada is the last nation using the Leopard 1. The latest version of the Leopard, the A6M has considerably better protection against mines, roadside bombs and RPG rockets. The 62 ton Leopard 2 has a 120mm main gun and two 7.62mm machine-guns. The 43 ton Leopard 1 has a 105mm gun, and is actually a little slower (65 kilometers an hour). Both tanks have a four man crew. Germany is selling off some of its Leopard 2s, and offered Canada 80 of them at a bargain price (to be negotiated, but brand new, they cost $6 million each). Canada wanted to try out the Leopard 2 via the lease first, before deciding to replace all the Leopard Is. If Canada is to maintain a tank force, it needs new vehicles. The Leopard 1s are showing their age, especially with the workout they are getting in Afghanistan.

Some Canadian legislators have been inclined to do without tanks, but Canadian military experts pointed out that these combat vehicles can be useful in peacekeeping operations. Not only are they impervious to most weapons, but they scare the hell out of the enemy. The Leopard 2, introduced in the 1980s, is somewhat scarier than the 1960s era Leopard 1. Thus inspired, the Canadian legislators decided to buy 100 Leopard 2s from the Netherlands.

Army commanders are now under pressure to speed up the delivery of the Leopard 2s to the troops. As part of that, arrangements have been made to trade 20 of the Dutch Leopard 2s, upgraded to German standards, for the twenty leased tanks in Afghanistan. Eventually, the hundred tanks will be organized into two tank squadrons, with 20 tanks each. Another 40 will be used for training, and the remaining 20 will be converted to eight engineer combat vehicles (which can also be used as recovery vehicles), while the remaining 12 will be retained for spare parts.

The U.S. has thousands of M-1 tanks available. These vehicles are very similar to the German Leopard 2. So far, other foreign contingents in Afghanistan have been content to use infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and MRAP armored trucks. But the IFVs are more vulnerable to RPGs and roadside bombs, while the MRAPs and wheeled armored vehicles have problems negotiating the many dirt roads in Afghanistan. Tanks have none of these problems.

 


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