Canadians hurriedly deployed to Poland to train Ukrainian troops as donated tanks head to frontlines
Leopard tanks rumble through the open terrain of Swietoszow day and night, their turrets swiveling rapidly to engage moving targets kilometres away.
Inside their hardened shells are battle-hardened Ukrainian soldiers, pulled from the frontlines for a 30-day crash course taught by Canadian troops at this Polish military base near the German border.
Most are already experienced on the Soviet-era tanks used by Ukraine's army. But the Leopards donated by Western nations are faster, better protected, and offer greater manoeuvrability and targeting capabilities.
"The Ukrainians have been since day one just incredible students," said Capt. Brittany Shki-Giziis of Canada's Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment. "The stakes are very high for them so they are incredibly determined."
Canada has sent eight Leopard 2 tanks from its own military inventory, part of a multi-nation effort to provide dozens of the German-built tracked vehicles to Ukraine, along with British Challenger and American Abrams tanks.
Those tanks will soon be on the frontlines – and the first class of Ukrainian tank crews to use them is already eager to put them to work.
"The goal is destroy the enemy," a Ukrainian major chuckles as three Leopard tanks pound targets on the Polish range. CBC is not naming him for security reasons, but he tells a visiting news crew that he'd long since left the military and begun his retirement when Russia invaded a year ago.
The Russian incursion changed everything.
The major says Ukrainian tenacity has surprised the Russians and the donated tanks "are causing panic."
"We need more ammunition," he quickly added.
Indeed, Ukraine's big guns on artillery and tanks consume thousands of rounds of ammunition each day in the gruelling war of attrition.
Canada has sent more than 100,000 tank rounds for Ukrainian use in training and the battlefield, along with bullets for the machine guns mounted to Leopard tanks.
Canadians deployed rapidly to meet Ukraine's need
The Canadian Armed Forces have trained more than 35,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2015, after Russia began a more limited invasion of Ukrainian territory.
Canada's mission — dubbed Operation Unifier — continues to this day, but it has moved into neighbouring countries.
When Western nations suddenly announced the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine's Armed Forces, it created an urgent need for instructors. Canada hurriedly deployed soldiers from its principal tank regiment in Edmonton to the base in Poland. They'll remain there for at least six months, training new rounds of Ukrainian soldiers on the Leopards.
The donated tanks themselves will soon be used in the war as soon as crews are trained.
The current task force commander of Operation Unifier, Lt.-Col. Chris Boileau, says what those crews face will be immediately incorporated into the Canadian curriculum.
"We have an absolutely ruthless efficiency when it comes to our after action reporting every serial of training … lessons being adapted from the battlefield," he said.
And there is a direct benefit for Canadian learning, says Shki-Giziis, who commands the Leopard training.
"The Canadians have been learning so much from the Ukrainians who came from the frontline," she says. "We are learning just as much as we are teaching."
Switching from Soviet-era tanks
Ukraine's President Volodomyr Zelenskyy had long urged the west to provide modern battle tanks, in part for the superiority, and in part to replace losses of Ukraine's own stock of Soviet-era tanks.
The Leopards are crewed by four soldiers and have multi-layer composite armour, widely acknowledged to be better defended against attack.
They can travel at 110 km/h and are heralded for their speed and accuracy, capable of striking targets five kilometres away while on the move.
"They really appreciate this tank," said Capt. Konrad Stefanowicz of Poland Armed Forces, which itself switched from Soviet tanks to Leopards upon joining NATO in 1999.
"They really are looking forward to using them in the future on the battlefield."
Stefanowicz acknowledges some of the soldiers trained on Leopards will be killed, and some of the tanks may be destroyed. But each, he points out, has much better survivability than the situation on the ground now.
Leopard's sophistication not without cost
But the Leopard's sophistication comes with added challenges.
"They're mechanically a lot more complex which means a lot more maintenance, a lot more work is required to keep them running," said Shki-Giziis. "However, the advantages outweigh the challenges."
Canadian soldiers are in Poland to train Ukrainians on how to use the Leopard 2 tanks, donated by Western nations. CBC’s David Common was on the firing range to see training and learn the difference they’ll make on the battlefield.
Still, in addition to the Canadians teaching the Ukrainians a new system for loading rounds, driving and targeting, the Ukrainians must build out a supply chain of spare parts and ammunition that are completely different from what's on hand.
Because the Leopard is one of the world's most-produced tanks, parts are available more easily, and the Ukrainians have demonstrated considerable skill at maintaining and defending complex supply lines, critical to any war effort.
Canadians may not be pulling the triggers in Ukraine, but they are now deeply involved in training those who do.
While other nations have donated more military equipment to the war effort, few are as involved as Canada in such a wide variety of training efforts — the latest, on tanks last in combat by Canada a decade ago in Afghanistan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Common covers a wide range of stories for CBC News, from war to disrupting scams. He is a host with the investigative consumer affairs program Marketplace, and a correspondent with The National. David has travelled to more than 85 countries for his work, has lived in cities across Canada, and been based as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Europe. He has won a number of awards, but a big career highlight remains an interview with Elmo. You can reach David at email@example.com, Twitter: @davidcommon.
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