This story originally appeared in The Breach on July 25, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
The Canadian government used an opaque U.S. military sales program to provide Saudi Arabia with billions of dollars worth of armoured vehicles, some of which were shipped out urgently after the Kingdom joined the war in Yemen, according to government documents and an arms sales database consulted by The Breach.
It’s the second-largest weapons export deal in Canadian history. But the Saudi clients have never been disclosed by the Canadian government. Nor has the fact been reported that the deal was struck at the behest of a U.S. plan to beef up the Saudi military.
In 2009, under former prime minister Stephen Harper, a Canadian crown corporation signed a deal on behalf of weapons manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada to provide 724 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. Government documents show that, as late as 2018, deliveries of the $2.9-billion worth of LAVs were still being fulfilled.
The vehicles manufactured in Canada were of the same make later seen being used in Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen for years.
The documents provide more evidence that the Canadian government may have knowingly supplied armoured vehicles for use in Yemen.
The government documents, obtained through an access-to-information request, indicate that Canada was shipping new vehicles to the Saudi National Guard for at least three years during the war. The Saudi National Guard is considered to be the Kingdom’s best-equipped ground force and was directly engaged in the one-sided conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Yemenis.
The Breach can also reveal that Canadian companies signed subsequent contracts to maintain the vehicles until at least 2025, according to U.S. Department of Defense procurement records. These contracts involve repairing vehicles that appear to have been damaged during Saudi military operations in Yemen.
The 2009 deal’s details have been shrouded in mystery because of Canada’s lack of transparency about its arms dealings, including those that go through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, the program that supplied Saudi forces with the weapons.
For decades, the program has integrated Canadian weapons production into American sales abroad, ensuring that the industry caters to the strategic needs of U.S. foreign policy.
Massive weapons deal flies under the radar
The lack of attention paid to the massive 2009 deal contrasts with the spotlight on another weapons deal.
A $14-billion deal signed in 2014 for a newer model of armoured vehicles—the largest such deal in Canadian history—was the subject of considerable press coverage and criticism from human rights groups.
But Canada’s second-largest weapons deal, signed five years earlier, has flown under the radar.
Arranged by a crown corporation that markets Canadian weapons to foreign buyers, it was run through the FMS program, one of the main avenues the U.S. Department of Defense uses to supply weapons to allied and friendly regimes.
Saudi Arabia is one of the largest customers of the FMS program and one of the largest clients of weapons from the U.S.
Canada’s 2009 deal was tied to the U.S. government’s “modernization” of the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
In 2011, another contract for a further 82 LAVs was signed through the same program. A U.S. Department of Defense news release announcing that contract said the sale would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States” and bolster “political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”
For decades, this office has attached several U.S. Army officials to the National Guard, funded by Saudi Arabia.
In internal memos dated Nov. 29, 2018, obtained by The Breach, Canadian officials lauded this arrangement’s benefit to Canada, calling it “one of the rare examples of [Canada-U.S.] partnership in foreign military sales involving the export of full systems from Canada via FMS…that date[s] back to the 1980s.”
A Breach investigation earlier this year revealed that the Canadian government believes its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are crucial to maintaining the regime as an “integral and valued security partner,” listing access to oil, opportunities for Canadian companies and reduced need for Western military missions as its rationale.
Saudis deploy the same vehicles in Yemen war
During the eight-year war, Saudi forces deployed the same model of LAV that Canada provided in combat operations across the northern regions of Yemen.
The Canadian LAVs seen operating in Yemen, the LAV-25 and its derivatives, are the older model of vehicle shipped under multiple contracts, with the largest being the 2009 FMS deal.
The LAV-25 model has been identified in images and videos posted from Yemen by weapons monitors and open-source researchers analyzing the proliferation of arms in the Yemeni conflict. Following an August 2019 Houthi attack on Saudi forces in Yemen’s northern Kitaf region, numerous LAV-25s were identified by experts in images of torched Saudi LAV columns.
Under the larger 2014 contract, Canada supplied a newer make of armoured vehicles that have not been seen operating in Yemen—the LAV-700—to the Saudi Royal Guard, a different unit in the Saudi military forces.
The new documents obtained by The Breach raise questions as to whether or not Canada knowingly supplied LAV-25s for use against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
In July 2015, just four months after the war in Yemen began, then-minister of foreign affairs Rob Nicholson approved “urgent” export permits for an undisclosed number of “[LAVs] and weapon systems to Saudi Arabia,” according to a memo that was included in the documents obtained by The Breach.
Further documents reveal that in September 2017, while the war was ongoing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government also received “urgent” export applications from General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada for LAV exports to Saudi Arabia. These applications specifically referenced LAVs being sent to the Saudi National Guard through FMS, one of the documents obtained by The Breach shows.
Global Affairs Canada has flip-flopped on whether or not Canadian weapons have been used in the Yemen conflict. Most recently, the department made the blanket claim that “there are no confirmed reports of Canadian-made military equipment being deployed by Saudi Arabia on Yemeni territory.”
Due to the Saudi-led Coalition’s record of violating international humanitarian law during the conflict, Canada’s provision of LAVs to the Kingdom constitutes a breach of its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.
According to the monitoring website Lost Armour, which tracks major military equipment destroyed during conflict, at least 61 LAV-25s and its variants were seized or destroyed by Yemeni rebels during the course of the war.
Canadian-made LAV-25s have also been diverted to the Saudi’s puppet Yemeni government, as detailed in an investigation by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in 2019. Credible allegations of diversion legally require action by Canadian officials, but Global Affairs Canada would not tell the reporters how much evidence it would need to actually open an investigation.
Canadians continue to service the Saudis
General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada has continued to maintain, test and repair the fleet of LAVs provided by Canada through the 2009 deal.
According to U.S. Department of Defense federal procurement records accessed by The Breach via the Tech Inquiry database, Canadian technicians have already been carrying out maintenance work on Saudi Arabia’s fleet of LAVs provided through the FMS program.
This work is being performed by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada technicians in Saudi Arabia.
Their servicing contracts, set to run until at least 2025, appear to have involved maintaining the Saudi National Guard’s LAV fleet after damages were incurred during operations within Yemen.
Large arms deals, and particularly those conducted through the FMS program, typically come with long-term servicing contracts.
Stefano Trevisan, a Geneva-based attorney at law and international expert on the regulation of post-sale services on arms contracts, said these crucial deals have “escaped scrutiny.”
“Maintenance is as fundamental as oil to [the running] of a tank. It is the same essential contribution,” he told The Breach. “Such services create long-term structural dependency between Western supplying states and multinational corporations and some of the world’s most repressive regimes.”
Trevisan suggests that the nebulous and sometimes intangible nature of post-sale servicing leads to a lower profile of these arms deals.
“These deals can go on for ten years” with little visibility, said Trevisan, who likens the relationship between original manufacturer and recipient to an “invisible link.”
The Canadian manufacturer enjoys a monopoly on this service work because it has been described by the U.S. Army as the only outfit possessing “the knowledge and expertise necessary” to fulfill the requirements of these awards.
Canadian officials have only acknowledged these sustainment contracts internally.
In March 2021, according to the documents obtained by The Breach, Global Affairs Canada staffers requested export authorizations for “4 active contracts with the U.S. FMS for the supply of LAVs and related products and services to Saudi Arabia.”
The documents noted the contracts “date back to 2009,” and were for “ancillary products/services (e.g. spare parts)” connected to the Saudi LAV program.
Canada’s ‘dependency’ on the US weapons export pipeline
With the exception of the 2014 contract to supply the Saudi Royal Guard with Canadian LAVs, all other Canadian LAV contracts to the government of Saudi Arabia have been undertaken through the FMS program, dating back to the first deliveries in 1991.
At any given time, there are hundreds of billions of dollars worth of active U.S. FMS contracts to more than 180 countries.
Jack Poulson, executive director of Tech Inquiry and a former senior data scientist at Google, told The Breach that Saudi Arabia is one of the most interesting examples of how the U.S. government aims to satisfy its foreign policy objectives by arming foreign states.
“As part of the U.S. government’s alignment with countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, U.S. defense contractors sell Saudi Arabia about $10 billion per year of missile defense, Black Hawk helicopters, M1 Abrams tanks, etc.” Poulson told The Breach by email.
The FMS program also operates as both diplomatic carrot and stick: those who stay in the good graces of the U.S. foreign policy machine continue to benefit from the program, while those who deviate run the risk of losing access to advanced Western-produced weaponry.
The program is viewed by the Canadian government as a conduit to get Canadian military goods to the international market, openly extolled as providing new potential business lines for Canadian arms manufacturers.
The Canadian Commercial Corporation, the federal body which brokered the LAV deals, has said in its corporate plans that “Canadian exporters are able to leverage the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program [as a means to] sell into the U.S. DoD inventory where their goods can then be re-sold to third party countries.”
Ernie Regehr, co-founder of Project Ploughshares and author of Arms Canada: The Deadly Business of Military Exports, explained to The Breach via email that Canada’s defence industry is “heavily dependent” on the U.S.
Regehr explained that Canada’s defence dependency dates back to the 1950s Defence Production Sharing Agreement. That agreement stipulated that Canada’s Department of National Defence would look to procure major weapons systems from American suppliers and, in turn, Canadian manufacturers would be granted preferential access in selling military goods to the American government.
“Allowing Canada access to the U.S. defence market was a small price for the U.S. to pay…to reinforce Canadian policy dependence on the U.S.,” Regehr said.
“Ever since, the dominant narrative has been that Canada can’t manage its own security, with substantial elements of the defence policy community relentlessly proposing further security integration with the U.S.”
Domestic arms production is frequently justified on the grounds that local producers can easily supply a nation’s armed forces in the event of armed conflict. However, most arms-exporting states stake a claim on one corner of the market by developing a production niche that soon needs foreign clients to stay profitable.
Canada is no exception, Regehr said.
“Aircraft engines, armoured vehicles and rifles are all examples of Canadian military production [that became] dependent on international sales in order to sustain the Canadian production facility,” he said, pointing out that all of these facilities are also Canadian-based subsidiaries of larger American-owned multinationals.
“[A]rmoured vehicles and automatic rifles were initially built for the Canadian Forces, but the Canadian market was too small to sustain the plants, and hence they developed a reliance on exports to foreign military forces.”
General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada was forced to look for foreign, non-American clients following the end of export contracts to the U.S. in the 1980s.
The client that ultimately saved the supplier was Saudi Arabia, with contract negotiations for its first major LAV procurement contract being finalized in 1990, and later delivered through the FMS program.
According to archival documents made available by the Canadian government, officials from the U.S. Army’s Office of the Program Manager first visited factories in London in 1981, spurring initial Saudi interest in vehicles from Canada.
Deliveries of LAVs to the Saudi Royal Guard under the $14-billion contract are likely moving into the final stages.
This contract will then, too, move into long-term maintenance, about which little information is available.
The terms of the contract have never been released to the public, despite the fact that the federal government signed the deal on behalf of the vehicle manufacturer.
This article is dedicated to Mohamed Abo-Elgheit, the award-winning reporter who conducted many important investigations for ARIJ, but who was taken far too soon after losing his battle with cancer late in 2022.