The Cougar – Canada’s little Tank Trainer that could

The Cougar was developed during the 1970s as part of a family of wheeled armoured vehicles for the Canadian Army. The Cougar was designed to serve as a tank trainer for armoured regiments that were not equipped with the Leopard C1. Although the Cougar was only intended for training, operational realities of the 1990s would see it deployed on active missions.

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Development

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Canadian government was searching for light and rapidly deployable armoured vehicles. Senior officers knew that the Army would still require a new tank (which would be the Leopard C1) to replace the aging Centurion, but another issue was that only enough tanks would be acquired for training at the Armoured School, and for the armoured regiment of 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (CMBG); the Canadian Army’s NATO contribution in West Germany.

However, armoured regiments were rotated through 4 CMBG every three years, meaning that regiments back in Canada would still require an armoured vehicle to train on in order to maintain tank skills.

At first, it appeared that the Army would select the British FV101 Scorpion light tank for this role, along with the FV721 Fox reconnaissance vehicle. However, a new Chief of Defence Staff was appointed in 1972: General J.A. Dextraze. Dextraze was not a supporter of either the Scorpion or the Fox, so a competition would commence in 1973 for a new series of wheeled armoured vehicles for the Canadian Army known as the Armoured Vehicle General Purpose (AVGP).

An FV101 Scorpion.
The FV101 was nearly chosen for the role. While this didn’t happen, its turret was used on the eventual design.

The original plan for the AVGP was to procure four variants: an armoured personnel carrier (APC), a tank trainer/Direct Fire Support Vehicle (DFSV), an anti-tank missile variant and an engineering vehicle. The competition consisted of six different competitors: the Swiss MOWAG Piranha, Cadillac-Gage V-150, Brazil’s Engesa EE-11 Urutu and the French Panhard M4, Berliet VXB-170 and Saviem VAB.

The MOWAG Piranha would be selected as the winner in 1977, in part that it had performed the best in field trials, but mainly due to the fact that MOWAG was the only company that offered licenced production of its vehicle in Canada if selected. Other companies did not provide a similar offer due to concerns about the increased costs of licenced production.

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MOWAG would select General Motors’ (GM) Diesel Division in London, Ontario as the Canadian company that would manufacture the vehicles. GM was selected as it possessed significant experience in the manufacturing of larger vehicles.

8x8 Piranha armored vehicle.
The Cougar was based on the 6×6 version of the Piranha (shown here is the 8×8 version. Image by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0.

This would mark the beginning of London-based GM (now a part of General Dynamics Land Systems) producing various wheeled armoured vehicles for Canada (Coyote, LAV III among others), the United States (LAV-25, Stryker) and other nations such as Australia (ASLAV) and Saudi Arabia (LAV-700).

491 AVGP variants would be produced for the Canadian Army: 269 Grizzly APCs, 27 Husky recovery vehicles and 195 Cougar tank trainers. For unclear reasons, the anti-tank and engineering variants were never produced. While the AVGP program resulted in three different variants, this article will focus on the Cougar tank trainer.

The Cougar

The chassis of the Cougar was based on the Piranha 6×6 wheeled armoured vehicle and the latter’s boat-like appearance would result in Cougar squadrons being dubbed “boat squadrons”.

The AVGP series were equipped with propellers and trim vanes for amphibious use; although these were eventually removed due to costs associated with maintaining the equipment. The Cougar also had a tank phone attached to the rear of the vehicle to permit dismounted infantry to communicate with the crew without having to tie up the radio net.

What made the Cougar distinct from the other AVGP variants was that it mounted the same Alvis turret as the FV101 Scorpion. This turret was armed with the Scorpion’s L23A1 low velocity 76mm cannon that could fire High Explosive (HE), High Explosive Squash Head (HESH), canister and smoke ammunition with 40 rounds carried: 10 rounds in the ready rack and a further 30 rounds in what crews called the “wine rack”.

AVGP Cougar.
The AVGP Cougar. Image from author’s own archive.

The HE and HESH rounds produced an orange tracer when fired that resulted in Cougar crews dubbing the L23A1 the “pumpkin launcher”.

The coaxial armament was a 7.62mm FN MAG machine gun (known in the Canadian Army as the C6) with 3,000 rounds carried.

There was also a bank of grenade dischargers on each side of the turret with each bank containing four 66mm smoke grenades. As well, there was an image intensification (II) sight for the gunner that was mounted in a small box to the right of the main gun with the coaxial machine gun mounted to the left. The gunner also had a laser sighting system. The crew commander only had a day sight.

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The main gun could elevate 35 degrees and depress 10 degrees while the turret was powered and had a full 360-degree traverse, however the turret was not stabilized. Also, the fume extractor was of limited quality and crews would fire the L23A1 with the commander’s hatch open to avoid being overcome by noxious fumes created from firing the main gun.

Cougar AFV swimming in water.
A Cougar showing off its amphibious abilities during demonstrations in 1979.

Another issue with the Cougar’s turret was that it was very small and cramped, there was only enough room for two people: the crew commander and gunner. This would mean that the crew commander would also have to double as the loader for the main gun and clear any stoppages on the coaxial machine gun as it was located on the commander’s side of the turret. Further, the turret had many hard and sharp edges inside that would cause minor bruises, cuts or scrapes: known to crews as “Cougar bites”.

In addition to the two-person turret, the Cougar had a driver to give a crew total of three. The driver sat in the front left of the hull. There were also two doors in the rear of the Cougar that provided seating for two soldiers, but generally this rear compartment was utilized as additional storage space. The Cougar was powered by a 275 horsepower Detroit Diesel 6-cylinder diesel engine that provided a top speed of 62 mph (100 kph) and a maximum range of 370 miles (600 km).

The Cougar’s maximum weight was 10,500 kg but its armour maximum thickness was only 10mm, only enough to stop small arms fire.

In Service

Cougars would start being issued to Regular Force (full-time) and Reserve (part-time) armoured regiments in 1980. This distribution marked the first time that both Regular Force and Reserve armoured regiments were issued new major equipment at the same time.

While the Regular Force received the Cougar with some indifference, the Reserves were appreciative of the vehicle despite its limitations as the Cougar had been the first armoured vehicle issued to the Army Reserve since the last Sherman M4A3E8 was retired from the Reserves in 1972. In-between retiring the Sherman and introducing the Cougar, Reserve armoured regiments operated machine-gun armed jeeps in a reconnaissance role.

As mentioned, the Cougar was only meant to be a tank trainer and not deploy on missions, however the 1990s and the fallout from the end of the Cold War would bring a period of high tempo for the Canadian Army that would result in the Cougar being deployed on operations.

Armored wheeled vehicle as an observation post.
A Cougar being used as an observation post during NATO execises in 1983.

Cougars would first be used on an aid to the civil power mission during the Oka Crisis of 1990: an armed stand-off over a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the Quebec provincial government that would eventually result in a request for military assistance from the federal government. A squadron of Cougars was deployed in support of the Army but, fortunately, the crisis was resolved without direct military intervention.

The Cougar would also be deployed overseas on UN Peacekeeping missions to Somalia (1992-1993) and the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995). The employment of the Cougar on these missions was controversial as it possessed limited protection and firepower.

In particular, the Cougar appeared to be of limited value as its smaller calibre gun would not be effective against the various tanks that were present in both Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. However, in terms of the Yugoslavia mission, Canada and some other nations did not want to appear too aggressive as to not provoke the warring factions, so Canada sent the Cougar. Despite this, some countries, like Denmark, were deploying Leopard 1 tanks!

Cougar wheeled vehicle during the Oka Crisis.
A Cougar during the Oka Crisis in 1990.

The Cougar’s limitations would not be seriously tested on the two UN Peacekeeping missions and while several vehicles would be damaged by mine strikes, none were lost to direct action. Afterwards, with the end of the Cold War and the subsequent return to Canada of all Canadian military forces stationed in a now united Germany, that resulted in distribution of the Leopard C1 (now upgraded to Leopard C2) to the Regular Force, all Cougars would be transferred to the Reserves in 2000.

However, by this point, the Cougar and the AVGP family were approaching the end of their service lives. There was some discussion of converting all AVGPs into specialist vehicles, but it was decided in 2003 to retire all AVGPs and the Cougar was removed from service in 2005. All Reserve armoured regiments were converted back to a strictly reconnaissance role with the military variant of the Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen light truck (aka the G-Wagon).

The Reserve armoured regiments would not receive another armoured vehicle until Textron’s TAPV (Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicle) was introduced into the Canadian Army in 2016.

AVGP Cougar used by Uruguay.
A Cougar used for crowd control in Uruguary. Image by MONUSCO CC BY-SA 2.0.

While no longer used by the Canadian Army, the Cougar is still in service elsewhere. A de-turreted Cougar was acquired by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and another by the Windsor Police Service for use by their respective police tactical teams. As well, in 2007 Uruguay purchased 44 Cougars, removed the turrets and converted them to APCs. These Cougar APCs are currently being employed by Uruguayan Peacekeepers operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Although the Cougar was a limited vehicle that has been out of Canadian service since 2005, the Canadian Army has never replaced the Cougar with a light-weight DFSV armed with a tank-calibre gun that could be rapidly deployed on operations; resulting in a capability gap between the Army’s LAV series and it’s much heavier Leopard 2s.