After more than 25 years of trying to replace the country’s fleet of Sea King maritime helicopters, the Canadian Forces have watched another deadline come and go.
Sikorsky International Operations Inc. was supposed to deliver the first of 28 state-of-the-art CH-148 Cyclones in June, after the Harper government agreed in late 2008 to extend the deadline on the $5.7-billion contract by 43 months.
In the latest in a string of missteps in military procurements, Sikorsky is pushing back on the delivery, with still no official date being offered for the completion of the contract.
“Sikorsky has yet to start delivering the Cyclones,” said Sébastien Bois, a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada.
The Sea Kings, which are nearly 50 years old, have been famously unreliable in recent years as they were placed aboard Canadian frigates on overseas missions to places such as the Persian Gulf. The Cyclones are expected to be more effective in all types of challenging environments, with high-tech radars and sensors to patrol the world’s turbulent seas.
The purchase is the latest in a series of problematic procurements by the Canadian Forces, such as the purchase of underperforming second-hand submarines and delays in acquiring search-and-rescue planes. The biggest controversy for the Harper government to date surrounds the mishandling of the sole-sourced $15-billion deal for F-35 fighter jets, which was the subject of a hard-hitting report by the Auditor-General this spring.
Sikorsky signed a contract with the previous Liberal government in 2004 to start delivering the fleet of Cyclones in 2008. The Harper government agreed in late 2008 to extend the deadline for the delivery of helicopters to June of this year, citing technological hurdles faced by the company.
The contract extension included a funding increase of $117-million as Ottawa said it would receive more powerful choppers than initially planned.
Sikorsky and the federal government are remaining vague about the problems with the Cyclone program, but it is clear the company is struggling to obtain the “airworthiness certification” that is mandatory for the helicopters to fly off on military missions. In addition, the company is still working to ensure the helicopters have the necessary engine power to meet the government’s mandatory endurance requirements.
Ottawa has been trying to replace its Sea Kings with new ship-borne helicopters since the mid-1980s. The Mulroney government had decided to purchase EH-101 helicopters for the job, but in one of his first acts in office, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien scrapped the contract in 1993. The cancellation cost taxpayers $478-million.
After a series of delays, the Liberals announced in 2004 that Sikorsky had won the competition to replace the Sea Kings, which the Canadian Forces had acquired between 1963 and 1969. Problems with the Sea Kings have abounded over the years, including crashes and routine groundings on military missions.
The opposition said the replacement program has become a national embarrassment.
“The whole program has been a disaster,” said NDP MP Jack Harris, who called on the government to slap maximum penalties against the company.
So far, Ottawa has imposed $8-million in liquidated damages against Sikorsky, and is threatening to run up the bill.
“Failure to deliver fully compliant Maritime Helicopters will be met with significant additional charges to the company,” said Michelle Bakos, a spokeswoman for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.
The company is late on two fronts. In addition to delays in delivering the final version of the Cyclone helicopter, Sikorsky is also well behind on its promise to deliver an “interim” version of the Cyclone to be used for training.
According to the 2008 contract extension, the interim helicopters were supposed to meet watered-down requirements, and were scheduled to arrive at the Canadian Forces base in Shearwater, N.S., in November, 2010. However, that portion of the contract has also not been fulfilled, causing months of delays in the training of technicians and aircrews.
“Critical work remains to be done before the Government of Canada can take official delivery and assume ownership of the interim helicopters,” Mr. Bois said. “Sikorsky leadership has reconfirmed their commitment to deliver helicopters at no additional cost to the Crown.”
Public Works and National Defence are stating that they expect the delivery of the interim helicopters to occur “later this year.” This suggests the delivery of the fully compliant helicopters – initially scheduled for 2008 – will not happen until 2013.
The Auditor-General investigated the Cyclone purchase in 2010, and concluded that National Defence underestimated the complexity of developing the military helicopters, which were wrongly defined as being an “off-the-shelf” purchase.
“In our opinion, National Defence did not adequately assess the developmental nature of this aircraft, and the risks related to cost and the complexity of the required technical modifications were underestimated,” the Auditor-General said.