OTTAWA -- Canada said on Wednesday it would replace its aging Leopard main battle tanks with lighter armored vehicles more suitable for the kind of armed combat that Canadian soldiers are likely to face.
Ottawa will spend around C$600 million ($460 million) on 66 U.S.-built Stryker vehicles, which have eight wheels and carry a 105 mm gun, as part of an overall strategy designed to make the armed forces more mobile.
Critics assailed the decision, saying it was akin to have "a fire department without fire trucks" and would weaken Canada's ability to fight properly.
The first of the vehicles -- built by subsidiaries of General Dynamics Corp. and General Motors -- are due to arrive by 2006.
Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier, chief of land staff, said the 42-ton Leopard tanks -- which last saw action in Kosovo in 1999 -- were "a millstone around our neck" because they were too large to be of much use in the countries where Canadian troops tended to be posted.
Hillier said the most important force behind the drive to transform the armed forces was the changing nature of armed threats.
"Terrorism, suicide bombers, riots, explosive devices and well-armed militias are today very real threats," he told a news conference.
"The so-called conventional threat, that of an attack by another country using massed infantry and tanks on land -- against which our equipment was previously measured -- has become increasingly unlikely."
Canada currently has around 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Kabul.
The opposition Canadian Alliance -- which has long accused Ottawa of underfunding the military -- said McCallum's decision was wrong and cited an internal armed forces document from 1998 which said the Strykers would be "combat ineffective" in both battles or on peacekeeping missions.
"Even the Defence Department's own scientific report suggests that replacing our tanks with a light vehicle like the Stryker is 'morally wrong'. How can the minister justify putting Canadian lives at risk?" said Rob Anders, the Alliance's defense spokesman.
Hillier, asked whether the Stryker was less safe than the Leopard, said it could withstand a hit by a rocket-propelled grenade or a shoulder-fired missile.