Military will need break when Afghan mission ends: Canadian army chief

The military may need a one-year break from operations starting July 2011 when the Afghanistan mission winds down, the head of Canada's army said Monday.

The military may need a one-year break from operations starting July 2011 when the Afghanistan mission winds down, the head of Canada's army said Monday.

Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie told the Senate defence committee Monday that the Canadian Forces have been strained by the mission that began seven years ago and need time to regroup.

"In the mid-term and beginning in July 2011, we will have to explore the possibility of taking a short operational break, that is well-organized and synchronized, of at least one year," he said.

Parliament agreed last year to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan to 2011 from the previous 2009 pull-out date. In addition, Canada currently has less than 100 soldiers deployed as part of a dozen other operations around the world.

A break may be needed, Leslie said, because the military is suffering from shortages of personnel, particularly experienced senior officers, as well as equipment.

Despite shortages, some equipment is not in use

But some equipment apparently isn't even being used.

There are 40 Leopard 2 battle tanks sitting unused in a Montreal warehouse and another 40 stored somewhere in Europe awaiting the federal government to hire a firm to refurbish them, Leslie said.

The tanks need to be outfitted with heavy armour to resist roadside bomb blasts.

The slightly used tanks have been in storage in Montreal since last November after Canada bought 100 surplus tanks from the Netherlands in 2007.

The Canadian army had borrowed 20 Leopard A6Ms from Germany in the summer of 2007 to quickly replace its own nearly 30-year-old Leopard tanks, which were not suited for use in Afghanistan.

The German loaners were returned once the newer Dutch tanks were delivered.

"Until such time as the contract is let and they're actually delivered from the manufacturer, who is going to refurbish them, into the hands of the army, they don't belong to the army," Leslie said outside the committee room.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the government intends to get the Leopard 2's into action expeditiously, though he didn't elaborate.

"Clearly the intention is to get those into theatre as quickly as possible. So we're determining how to do that," he said.

"Those Leopard tanks are lifesavers. They are game changers, and we want to get those tanks where they can be used to save lives and to further the aims of the mission."

Neither the Public Works Department, which is responsible for awarding government contracts, nor the Defence Department were immediately available to comment on the tanks.

Most military base equipment out of service

Earlier, Leslie told senators that more than 70 per cent of equipment used on military bases across Canada to train soldiers before they deploy to Afghanistan is out of service at any given time.

Vehicles aren't being repaired because the military lacks skilled mechanics and technicians, he said. And as more vehicles break down, he added, fewer are available for soldiers to train on before deploying to Afghanistan.

Citing figures from last month, Leslie said 33 per cent of the army's light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) are out of service, along with 76 per cent of its Coyotes, 100 per cent of its tracked light-armoured vehicles (TLAVs), 73 per cent of its Bisons and 71 per cent of its Leopard tanks.

"This situation is extremely serious because the number and types of equipment that have to be repaired and replaced continues to increase at a rapid pace, and their use is much greater than planned when they were originally purchased," Leslie said.

He said the military is now using all its equipment in "extremely demanding" conditions and so time-consuming maintenance and repair is needed.

Leslie called on Ottawa to cut some of the red tape that often bogs things down.

"We have to eliminate process," he said. "Or reducing the amount of paperwork and the decision time and the decision cycles… to fix equipment that's broken."