Sea King substitute’s delay means a scramble on the landing deck

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

The delivery of the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone to the Canadian Forces has been delayed, and both the manufacturer and the federal government have been vague about what’s causing the hold-up. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

As the Canadian Forces were getting ready to welcome their long-awaited fleet of new maritime helicopters, they modified the landing deck on HMCS Regina.

The move was essential to ensure the new CH-148 Cyclones could safely land on the frigate in turbulent waters, as the state-of-the-art aircraft have a different landing configuration than the nearly 50-year-old Sea Kings that have been flown off the vessel for decades.

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However, a new round of delays in the delivery of the Sikorsky aircraft has forced the military to go back on the modifications to HMCS Regina. Turning back the clock, the military has had to get the vessel ready to again welcome old Sea Kings on its deck, government sources said Monday.

The situation illustrates the cost and complexity to the government of the multiple delays in the delivery of the fleet of 28 Cyclones, purchased in 2004 at a cost of $5.7-billion.

The bungled procurement has reinforced the perception in Ottawa that the military acquisition process is flawed and might need to be reorganized under the single umbrella of a specialized agency. Under the current system, major military purchases are handled jointly by the departments of National Defence and Public Works.

The Sikorsky purchase is the second major procurement headache afflicting the Harper government, which has been overhauling the process to acquire a new fleet of fighter jets to replace its CF-18s after a damning report by the Auditor-General earlier this year.

Plans to replace the Sea Kings go back to the mid-1980s. After ripping up a contract for new choppers in 1993, the Liberal government bought the Cyclones in 2004, stating the aircraft would start arriving at CFB Shearwater in 2008. At the time, the Liberals boasted the contract with Sikorsky International Operations Inc. marked “the end of an extremely rigorous procurement process.”

However, the company faced a variety of technological hurdles that delayed the development and production of the new aircraft, and the Harper government was forced to offer a 43-month reprieve on the delivery of the helicopters in 2008.

Under a deal signed by the Conservative government at the time, Sikorsky agreed to start delivering fully compliant helicopters by June 30 of this year. That deadline has come and gone, however, and neither Sikorksy nor Public Works could offer a new delivery schedule on Monday.

The delay has forced the HMCS Regina to re-modify its landing deck.

“In preparation for the receipt of new maritime helicopters, the deck of the HMCS Regina was converted to accept a Cyclone,” said an official at National Defence.

“Given Sikorsky’s recent delay to the delivery date set out in the contract, modifications were necessary to ensure the HMCS Regina would be deployable.”

The company has also failed to deliver “interim” helicopters for training of Canadian aircrews and technicians. The interim helicopters, which only had to meet watered-down performance requirements, were due to be delivered to the Canadian Forces in 2010.

Government and military sources said there is much frustration at the delays, as highlighted by the series of modifications that had to be made on HMCS Regina. Over time, all of the Canadian Forces frigates will have to be modified to welcome the Cyclones, although it is unclear when that will happen.

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.

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 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.

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.

The Sea Kings, bought in the 1960s, 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.