10/21/2011 11:59 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Light-Armoured Vehicles To Get $1-Billion Upgrade

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EDMONTON - A big part of the Canadian army's fleet of light armoured vehicles is getting a billion-dollar makeover to make them tougher, safer and more mobile.

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced details Friday of the plan to upgrade 550 LAV IIIs so they can better withstand deadly roadside bombs and mines.

Ambrose said the $1.06 billion contract awarded to General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada will protect jobs at plants in Edmonton and London, Ont., and with the company's suppliers across the country.

"They will maintain 2,400 jobs across the country. These are very high-value, high-skilled jobs," Ambrose said while standing beside one of the green, 17-tonne vehicles.

"But most importantly, this upgraded equipment will make sure our men and women in uniform are safer on the battlefield."

The government first announced in 2009 that General Dynamics would do a LAV upgrade, but said it needed time to define what changes should be made and at what cost.

The LAV IIIs were the mechanical backbone of Canadian army forces in Afghanistan and continue to be their main fighting vehicle. The fast, eight-wheeled LAVS are armed with a cannon and machine guns, and can carry eight fully equipped infantry.

General Dynamics says the upgraded LAVS will have double V-shaped hulls to help deflect explosive blasts from the ground, including from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The vehicles will get more armour and special seats that can absorb some of the energy from explosions.

The LAVS will also get a more powerful engine, more robust suspension and an improved weapons control system.

Col. Omer Lavoie, commander of the Edmonton-based 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, praised the project, which will extend the operational life of the vehicles until 2035.

Lavoie, who commanded Canada's battle group in Kandahar in 2006 and 2007 — often from the inside of a LAV — said the changes to the vehicle will save soldiers lives.

"From first-hand experience I can tell you that the protection afforded by the LAV III saved my life on several locations and the lives of my soldiers on hundreds of occasions," he said.

"It will afford them better protection. The threat is evolving, so better protection in terms from blasts from IEDs."

It has been a big week for military spending.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced $33 billion in shipbuilding contracts. Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax will become the prime contractor for new navy warships worth $25 billion. Vancouver-based Seaspan Marine won roughly $8 billion in contracts for non-combat ships.

Ambrose said the shipbuilding contracts and the LAV upgrade projects will bolster the economy. She noted that 90,000 Canadians work in defence-related industries.

The government also has an obligation to ensure the military has the tools it needs to do its job, she said.

"When we think of what they do for us, it is the least that we can do to make sure that they have the best possible equipment."