Canada’s Leopard C1 and C2 Main Battle Tanks

In 2017 Canada retired its aging Leopard C2 main battle tank, which has given loyal service to the nation for over 40 years. It is based on the German Leopard 1, one of the iconic and numerous tanks of the Cold War period. Initially entering service in 1977 as the Leopard C1, these tanks have served Canada’s heavy metal needs for decades.

These tanks are considered obsolete today, but they remained in Canadian service for so long that they ended up operating alongside their own successor, the Leopard 2, in combat.

It hasn’t always been easy going though, with the Leopards seeing many ups and downs during their service, including a brief period where it appeared that tanks would disappear entirely from the Canadian Army, only to have combat operations in Afghanistan validate the worth of the tank to Canada.

Contents

Background

The Centurion had been Canada’s tank since 1952 and while it had received several upgrades, by the early 1970s, the Centurion was showing its age and in requirement of replacement. Starting in 1974, the Canadian Army commenced a search for a replacement. While some senior officers thought that the Army should wait for the Leopard 2 to come into service, the Army required a new tank sooner rather than later and the only available options were the M60A3, the Leopard 1 or the AMX-30.

Canadian Centurions, West Germany.
Canadian Centurions of the RCD’s in the streets of Regenstauf, West Germany, 1975.

Narrowing the decision was that during this period the Canadian government was seeking special trade status with several European nations. West Germany insisted on linking any trade negotiations with Canada replacing its dated Centurion tanks with the Leopard 1.

Thus, the Leopard 1 would enter Canadian Army service in 1977.

Canada would initially purchase 114 Leopard and Leopard-based variants: eight Taurus Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARV) and six Beaver Armoured Vehicle-Launched Bridges (AVLB) for a total cost of $187 million.5 In 1990, Canada would purchase nine Badger Armoured Engineering Vehicles (AEV), which was also based on the Leopard 1 chassis.

Leopard C1

The Canadian Leopard 1 (dubbed the Leopard C1 in Canadian service) was based on the Leopard 1A3 with some minor changes. These modifications included a Belgian SABCA fire-control system with a laser rangefinder, replacing the German MG3 7.62 mm coaxial and anti-aircraft machine guns with the Belgian FN MAG, which is used in the Canadian Army as the C6, an American Zenon searchlight and a low-light-level television for night engagements. The Leopard C1 would still retain the Royal Ordnance 105 mm L7A3 tank gun; a variant of the L7 developed for the Leopard 1.

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The ammunition for the C1 included high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT), high-explosive squash head (HESH), armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) and smoke.

A Candian Leopard C1 in Germany.
A Canadian Leopard C1, in Germany, 1982.

In 1996, a major upgrade was for the Leopard C1 was announced with Canada’s tanks being upgraded to the Leopard C2 standard (not to be confused with the Leopard 2). Essentially, this upgrade for the Canadian Army was replacing the C1 turret with surplus German Leopard 1A5 turrets along with some other modifications that included an upgraded fire control system with an EMES 18 thermal sight, spall liners for crew protection and a fire suppression system.

Canada accepted the Leopard 1 in 1977, however time would be required for new tanks to be built. In the meantime, German Leopard 1A2s were lent to the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) stationed in Lahr, West Germany as part of 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (CMBG); the Canadian Army’s NATO contribution. With only 16 weeks of training, the RCD would win NATO’s highly prestigious tank gunnery competition, the Canadian Army Trophy (CAT), in 1977.

Canadian Leopard C1s in Western Bavaria, 1979.
Canadian Leopard C1s in Western Bavaria, 1979.

Eventually, newly manufactured Leopard C1s would be delivered to 4 CMBG’s armoured regiment with 59 tanks and the remaining C1s going to the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School in Gagetown, New Brunswick for the purpose of training armoured recruits. The Leopard C1 would remain in West Germany until Canada withdraw its forces from a now unified Germany in 1993 with the end of the Cold War and the Leopard C1s would be brought back to Canada and distributed to armoured regiments across the country.

The Leopard C2

Starting in 1987, there were discussions of new tanks for the Canadian Army to replace the C1. However, a newly elected Liberal government in 1993 and the realities of post-Cold War defence budgets meant that a more economical means would have to be found.

Therefore, the Canadian government announced a $145 million CAD program to upgrade all 114 C1s to the Leopard 1A5 standard, with the upgraded tanks being named the Leopard C2. As previously indicated, this upgrade involved several modifications and the replacement of the C1s Leopard 1A3 turret with a 1A5 turret.

Leopard C2 on the move.
A Leopard C2. Note the upgraded turret over the C1.

Canada would purchase 123 Leopard 1A5 turrets with 114 for the in-service C1s, five turrets for training, two for spares and two turrets for maintenance testbeds. The first delivery of the Leopard C2 to the Canadian Army would occur in November 1999 with final upgraded tank being delivered in October 2001.

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However, the upgrade of the Leopard C1 to C2 proved to be more complicated than initially expected. Rather than just straight swapping out a C1 turret for a 1A5 turret; the L7 gun of the 1A5 would be taken out and then the L7 gun from a C1 would be removed and fitted into the 1A5 turret. This along with installing new instruments would result in only 66 out of 114 C1s being converted to the C2 standard.

Service

While some Leopard C1s were in the process of being upgraded, the tank would finally see operational deployment during the 1990s. Two C1s would be deployed to Bosnia in 1996 with one tank equipped with mine rollers and the other with a plough for mine clearance in a country recovering from war. Then, in 1999, five C1s with add-on armour would be deployed as part of Canada’s contribution to Kosovo Force (KFOR), only to be withdrawn a few months later. The C1 would not seen combat on either operation.

Leopard C1 equipped with mine rollers.
Leopard C1 equipped with mine rollers.

In 2003, it appeared that the Leopard and tanks in general, would disappear from the Canadian Army when the government announced that the C2 would be replaced by the M1128 Mobile Gun System (MGS) Stryker variant; a vehicle derived from the Canadian built Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) III.

Several officers, including the Chief of Defence Staff at that time who was an armoured officer (General Rick Hillier), stated that the decision to remove the tank from the Canadian Army was the right choice as the tank was now a dated platform in a post 9/11 era marked by insurgent warfare and the requirement to deploy rapidly. In anticipation of the C2’s removal from service, the 48 C1s that had not been upgraded were sold to museums, converted to monuments or used as range targets.

Leopard C2 at TankFest 2022.
A Leopard C2. Note the additional armor on the turret – this is made from a polycarbonate material.

While some supported the 2003 announcement, many lambasted the decision to remove tanks from the Canadian Army, claiming that it was decision solely based on politics rather than any operational requirement. Especially after numerous computer simulations had demonstrated that the MGS was a poor substitute for the tank, suffering twice as many casualties as a same sized tank force would on the same mission.

Afghanistan

The controversy regarding the 2003 announcement would soon become mute as combat operations in Afghanistan would provide a new lease on life for the Leopard C2 and the tank in the Canadian Army. In 2006, the insurgency facing the Canadian Army in Kandahar province became increasingly violent, cumulating in Operation Medusa in September 2006 where Canadian soldiers suffered many casualties against a determined and well-prepared Taliban.

The main armoured vehicle employed by the Canadian Army in Afghanistan was the LAV III. While the LAV III was a good vehicle, it did not possess the protection or firepower required to deal with a growing insurgency by itself. The Army realized that it required another vehicle with better protection and firepower, especially as many Afghan structures were made of thick mud brick that the 25 mm M242 Bushmaster chain gun of the LAV III could not penetrate.

Therefore, a recently elected conservative government that was not committed to the previous government’s 2003 announcement of removing tanks from the Army, announced in September 2006 that a squadron of Leopard C2s would be deployed to Afghanistan. 15 uparmoured C2s along with five spares, four ARVs and four AEVs would arrive into Kandahar in October. In December 2006, C2s would engage insurgents in the first combat action by Canadian tanks since the Korean War.

Leopard C2 MEXAS upgrade.
A Leopard C2 with the MAXAS upgrade boards an aircraft on its way to Afghanistan.

While successful in Afghanistan, the Leopard C2 was showing its age: initially meant for combat in Europe the C2 did not possess air conditioning for the intense Afghan heat. Further, as the C2 was an older tank, the Canadian Army wanted a better protected and newer vehicle so the government announced in 2007 the acquisition of 20 Leopard 2A6Ms from German stocks for use in Afghanistan.

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However, the Leopard C2 would continue to operate in a supplementary role to the 2A6M. For one, the 2A6M does not fire a HESH round due to its smoothbore gun being unable to put the required spin on a HESH shell so it can maintain its effectiveness. The closest equivalent that the Leopard 2A6M had was HEAT, however the HESH round fired from the rifled L7 gun of the C2 was valued for its explosive effects on the hardened brick structures in Afghanistan.

Leopard C2 main battle tank.
Despite its age, the Leopard C2’s 105 mm gun remained effective until the tank was retired.

Most importantly, the Leopard C2 remained in service throughout the remainder of Canada’s Afghan mission due to the fact that the Leopard 2A6M did not possess brackets for mounting dozers, rollers and ploughs that were so important for route clearance (especially against IEDs) and breeches.

This equipment was also valuable as it enabled quick demolishing of low level brick walls when required to reduce canalization of forces. As the Leopard C2 had the bracket mounts for such kit, it remained in theatre until Canada withdrew from Afghanistan in 2011.

While the Leopard C2 performed admirably, it would come with costs as three C2s were destroyed and another 15 damaged during the five years that Canadian tanks were in Afghanistan.

End of the Line

The Leopard C2 would continue to serve the Army after Canada’s military commitment to the Afghanistan mission concluded in 2011. However, with the C2 continuing to age and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, it would gradually be phased out as more Leopard 2s would come into Canadian Army service, including Leopard 2s equipped with brackets for mounting ploughs and rollers. The Canadian Army now operates 42 Leopard 2A4+, 20 Leopard 2A4M, 20 Leopard 2A6M, 12 ARVs and 18 AEVs.

Leopard 2A4 MBT.
Canada now operates the Leopard 2A4-series of tanks. Image by Texcoco.

The Leopard C2 would be retired from the Canadian Army in 2017, however Canada attempted to find a new home for its remaining C2s but a potential sale to Jordan fell through in 2018 and any further attempts to sell the tanks did not materialize.

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In December 2021, Canada would turn over its remaining 45 Leopard C2s to an Alberta company for repurposing the tanks into targets at the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range: a sad end for a tank that provided a remarkable 40 years of stalwart service to the Canadian Army.