Canadian Shield: Making armoured vehicles for Ukraine
If there has been a defining characteristic of Ukrainians during the war, it has been their steely yet smiling resolve in defiance of the Russian forces. Even as they endure incomprehensible brutality, their spirit — the belief that Ukraine will prevail — is unbroken.
That enthusiasm is evident in everything from official Ukrainian government communications channelling Ferris Bueller, to recent viral videos of the jubilation after the liberation of Kherson.
And it is apparent the instant you meet Volodymyr, an imposing yet gentle giant with an infectious smile for everyone he meets.
Coming here is everything he hoped it would be.
“In Canada, I like everything,” he says. “Because people are kind here, good relations with everybody.”
The fractured relationship between his homeland and neighbouring Russia, however, is constantly on his mind. Volodymyr only goes by his first name, because he still has family in Ukraine.
“I watch the situation that is going on in Ukraine,” he says. “I can’t help watching the news, because my parents are there. I feel bad for them, I am worried.”
He was living outside Ukraine when war broke out nine months ago, and came to Canada. But while Volodymyr can’t defend his country on the battlefield, he has taken up a different opportunity to help protect Ukrainian soldiers with passion and fortitude against the Russian assault.
He’s doing it at an unlikely place — a nondescript factory in an industrial area of Mississauga, Ont., where there’s a uniquely Canadian story playing out, equal parts business and personal.
Volodymyr is one of at least 30 Ukrainian newcomers to Canada helping a little-known local manufacturer make armoured personnel carriers for the war effort in their homeland.
“I’ve never served in the army, nor was I in the reserve,” the barrel-chested welder told Global News’ current affairs program The New Reality. “I am assembling these vehicles to help our lads fight in Ukraine. So, I am helping as much as I can.”
A success story made in Canada
The vehicle is called the Senator. The company is called Roshel — it’s both the namesake and brainchild of Roman Shimonov, an immigrant himself, from Israel.
On a walk through the plant, Shimonov takes us through the production line from start to finish, pointing out the high-tech laser-cutting machines that precisely trim down sheet metal to form the vehicle’s tough outer skin. He shows us how they take the metal and shape it, grind it and weld it together before the vehicles are ready to paint.
It is an intense hive of activity with workers constantly in motion, machinery whirring, and sparks flying from welding torches throughout the space. It’s not only the Ukrainians who have bought into the mission; there’s a palpable feeling that employees here are focused and serious about the work, yet happy to be here.
The Senator is armoured, and loaded with smart technology to protect both the soldiers inside from gunfire and help them detect and avoid danger before it happens. It’s not meant for frontline combat, but has become critical equipment for Ukrainian troop transports, medical evacuations, delivery of aid, and prisoner swaps.
Until this year, Roshel had been selling the Senator mostly to security and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and other western allies. (The vehicle was used to transport NASA astronauts to a SpaceX launch to the International Space Station in May 2020.) Roshel does not sell to individuals or rogue nations.
When war broke out, Shimonov, whose wife is from Ukraine, quickly realized there was an opportunity to grow his business, and help Ukrainians. And hiring newcomers from that country was his secret weapon.
“These people are coming with a specific motivation,” Shimonov says. ”They’re not just doing their job. They’re helping their country, their motherland, by creating those vehicles that at the end will go there and will save people’s lives, maybe their relatives.”
Shimonov started Roshel in 2016, and the first Senator rolled off the line in 2018. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Shimonov supercharged Roshel’s production line, increasing its output tenfold since last year. Roshel can complete production of two Senator vehicles per day. And it’s possible to get them delivered on the ground in Ukraine in a month — speed that is critical to the forces defending against the invaders.
The Canadian government has bought eight Senators for Ukraine, but that is dwarfed by purchases from other countries. NATO and other western allies have bought dozens more since the war broke out. In all, there are at least a hundred Senators currently being used by Ukrainian military and law enforcement agencies engaged in defending the country. And the reviews have been glowing.
“I don’t know any cases when someone from [among] my friends or Ukrainian soldiers was killed in this car. So it means that it provides high-quality protection for soldiers,” says Marat, a driver with the volunteer special forces unit of the Ukrainian military called the Kraken.
These are fighters who face, among other threats, fire from BM-21 Grad multiple-launch rocket systems. The Soviet-era weapon can launch 40 rockets in seconds, raining down like stones — “grad” is actually the Russian word for hail. Those rockets are notoriously indiscriminate. When one hits, the blast can kill or injure anyone in a 28-metre radius.
Global News has reviewed videos from two separate incidents in which missiles landed approximately one metre from a Senator.
The tires were a little worse for wear. But ballistic glass and steel withstood the power of the blast in both attacks. No Ukrainians were hurt.
Riding in a Senator outside Kupyansk, just over 30 km from Russia, reveals a broken landscape dotted with the wreckage of bombed-out cars and buildings. Ukrainians in dangerous proximity to the eastern border with Russia often come under fire. So far, the Senator has passed every test with flying colours.
Orest, a sergeant with the Kraken, tells of how he recently came under Russian fire inside the vehicle. “A projectile exploded next to us.” The enforced windshield sustained damage, but all personnel inside the vehicle were unharmed. “The vehicle completely worked as it was designed,” Orest says.
After the early days of the war, when Ukrainian soldiers were being transported in commercial vehicles with no armour, or captured Russian vehicles, the Senator has been a godsend.
“It has the same protection class as the Russian Tiger [light armoured vehicle], but the Senator’s armour withstands stronger impact,” Orest told Global News.
Orest isn’t the only one impressed with the performance of the Senator. Indeed, the Ukrainian government has requested more armoured vehicles from Canada.
In an October interview with CTV and CBC, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy was asked about the fact that the request has yet to be fulfilled. While he declined to answer if he felt disappointed, Zelenskyy went on at length about the close ties between Ukrainian and Canadian governments and people. Much attention was paid to his likening it to “being relatives, regardless of the distance.”
But Zelenskyy, who has become renowned for being a creative and effective communicator, clearly had a message for Ottawa.
In his answer, he chose to describe the strong, steadfast relationship between Ukraine and Canada as “armoured” — three times.
“Canada supports [Ukraine], not just with armoured vehicles. … I can probably say this is an ‘armoured’ support.” And later, about Canada’s diplomatic efforts, Zelenskyy said, “This is an armoured support, and armoured assuredness, I’m very grateful for that support.”
Canada seen as leader in armoured vehicles: Anand
Roshel has drawn the attention of other high-profile politicians, including Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
On the heels of Canada’s announcement of eight Roshel Senators to Ukraine in April, Austin lauded Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand during a news conference at the Pentagon. “Canada stepped up with an important announcement on armoured vehicles and other vital capabilities for Ukraine,” he said. “Madame Minister, that’s just what we’ve come to expect from Canada, and from your own leadership, and sense of moral purpose.”
Anand herself has been emphasizing that armoured vehicles are a critical part of Canada’s strategy to support Ukraine, on top of military training and delivery of aid.
“Part of [Canada’s military aid] has gone to the purchase of vehicles for Ukraine, eight Roshel Senators, as well as 39 ACSVs from GDLS [General Dynamics Land Systems].”
Unlike the Senators, those 39 armoured combat support vehicles take months, not weeks, to produce and deliver. They are en route to Ukraine, but a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of National Defence could not confirm when they would arrive.
But it is Roshel’s efficiency and customer base (more than 92 per cent of these Canadian-made vehicles in Ukraine have been purchased by other nations) that is making it a bit of a disruptor in the industry. General Dynamics is the fifth largest defence contractor in the world, with revenue of nearly US$40 billion in 2021. Being mentioned in the same sentence as GD is a big deal for a relative newcomer like Roshel.
In the interview with Global News, Anand went on to tout Roshel as one of the companies that could make Canada a world leader in armoured car manufacturing — and underlined that she has been communicating that message to Western allies.
“In terms of vehicles, I’ve asked my colleagues across the NATO alliance to think about Canada as a leader in this area, because what we are providing to Ukraine are brand new vehicles fresh off the line to make sure that Ukraine has best-in-class technology,” she said.
Anand was likely referring to the last few meetings of the Ukraine Defence Contact group — where an understanding among Ukraine’s allies has emerged that military aid to Ukraine, especially equipment needed to fight a war, needs to be coordinated according to each country’s unique capabilities.
“And in terms of military aid going forward, we will continue to be that leader,” Anand said. “We are recognized as such by [Ukrainian Defence] Minister Reznikov, by [NATO Secretary General] Jens Stoltenberg. And what Ukraine needs now is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”
Zelenskyy visits recaptured Kherson, vows to drive Russia from all of Ukraine
But if Canada is to fulfill Anand’s ambitious plan, military procurement expert Dave Perry says the government must back up its words with action.
“Government would have to work collaboratively with the industry real fast and the potential to scale up real quickly, I think, would depend on exactly how collaborative and urgent that arrangement could be made,” Perry says.
“I am a little skeptical unless you actually see some concrete plans and a strategy to make this come to fruition. There’s definitely the potential here,” Perry says.
“But if you were to assume that was several thousand vehicles, I don’t think that there’s many companies in the world that can basically just snap their fingers and start tooling out that number of vehicles in only a few months’ time.”
Roshel isn’t waiting for support from Ottawa. Just this month, it expanded into more warehouse space to increase its capacity. And after producing more than 200 Senators this year, it is planning to churn out at least 1,000 in 2023.
The increased production shows up on Roshel’s bottom line. In only its fifth year, the company pulled in revenue of more than $100 million last year, with another big increase expected this year.
The extremely ambitious and exacting Shimonov calls himself a “dreamer,” but he runs his business with a focus and efficiency he admits was honed during his mandatory military service in Israel.
“No compromises can be made when it comes to armoured vehicles. Everything should be designed, organized and executed the way you plan, and the way your clients would expect,” he says.
After completing his military service, Shimonov started an intelligence-related business. Not long after, he sold it and began seeking a safer place to raise his family. Almost immediately upon arriving in Toronto, he says he knew that was where he wanted to put down roots. Shimonov recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in Canada.
“It was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Shimonov told Global News. “In terms of security, safety, political aspects and many other aspects … no question, Canada is one of the best places to raise your kids and to run a business.”
Only four years after he arrived, he started Roshel. Success, he says, followed his approach to building his company.
“Usually entrepreneurs will set a target to make as much money as possible. My target was completely different. My target was first to come up with a product that will sell itself,” Shimonov explains.
He started with the idea of making armoured luxury cars for individuals. But he quickly pivoted to an idea to make smarter armoured vehicles for cash-transporting companies that would reduce the risk of theft. The majority of robberies of “cash-in-transit” vehicles are inside jobs — Shimonov says the rate is as high as 85 per cent. So he focused on developing technology that removes control over valuable cargo from any one person.
“With this system, we’re basically able to control the vehicle remotely in an encrypted way, including the remote systems that rely on a specific frequency that can communicate between the crew and the vehicle, and back to the dispatch.”
Cash-transporting giant GardaWorld has bought in completely to the idea. It has bought hundreds of Roshel’s armoured vans since 2020, part of a deal to eventually replace its entire North American fleet.
Shimonov says since GardaWorld started using his company’s vehicles, not a single one has been robbed.
As Shimonov walks through his plant, he talks to workers, gives instructions, and explains another key guiding philosophy.
“It’s important to say that the percentage of Canadian content in our vehicle is higher than any other [competitor] vehicle. And the whole process that we’re doing here, including the engineering, the R&D, the metal fabrication, milling, machining, turning, sewing, painting, sandblasting, everything is done here in house.”
That principle has allowed Roshel to ramp up production during the pandemic, while businesses of all stripes have struggled with meeting deadlines due to supply chain challenges.
Roshel was able to make a deal with Ford to supply chassis from its F550 model trucks. That forms the base of the Senator.
Aside from the tires, everything else is done under Shimonov’s watchful eye.
“You want to control the whole process,” he says. “So when you set the date when the vehicle will be delivered, you want to make sure that will be delivered on time. And so far, since 2016, we never had a delay on any of our products. We deliver everything on time and we have 100 per cent success with our clients. If you fail once, I doubt if you will get a second chance.”
The Roshel plant operates two shifts, seven days a week. It’s a demanding schedule, but Shimonov is focused not on the pressure, but on getting the vehicles to Ukraine as quickly as possible.
“People that we’re delivering those vehicles to are under much more pressure than us.”
The support has not gone unnoticed by Ukrainian soldiers like Marat, who is hoping to see more Roshel vehicles protecting his fellow troops.
“To all Canadian people who support Ukraine, thank you very much. Please keep doing it further, because we really need support to fight against Russia. We fight for our freedom, liberty and the ability to be ourselves, the Ukrainians, not to be part of Russia. Thank you very much.”
Perhaps the only negative attention Roshel’s efforts have drawn is from Moscow.
“Four of my colleagues, including myself, are on the sanction list of the Russian government. For us, it’s the best recognition that we could get.”
Of all the accolades Shimonov’s company has earned in a short time, it’s perhaps the one that gives him the most satisfaction.
“I opened a bottle of champagne the day when I read that I’m on the sanction list,” he said. “I have another bottle for the day when Putin will be gone.”