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Canadian troops, belonging to November Company of the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment make their across a field as a Canadian CH-47D Chinook lifts off after dropping them off during an assault Saturday, March 7, 2009 on a Taliban command centre in Zhari District. It was the first time Canadian soldiers had conducted a combat assault with their own aircraft, rather than relying on other countries. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press/Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)
Canadian troops, belonging to November Company of the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment make their across a field as a Canadian CH-47D Chinook lifts off after dropping them off during an assault Saturday, March 7, 2009 on a Taliban command centre in Zhari District. It was the first time Canadian soldiers had conducted a combat assault with their own aircraft, rather than relying on other countries. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press/Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Canadian Chinook helicopters being auctioned off as combat mission ends Add to ...

National Defence has put "For Sale" signs on the air force's Chinook helicopters in Afghanistan - two years after taxpayers shelled out $282-million to buy them.

The department recently sounded out allies in the war-torn country to see whether any are interested in the heavy battlefield transports, purchased second-hand from the U.S. Army.

Some defence analysts suggest Canada might be better served by bringing the choppers home for domestic operations, perhaps improving the search-and-rescue system.

So far there have been no takers for the five CH-147D choppers, which were rushed into Afghanistan after the Manley commission made it a condition of Ottawa continuing the war until 2011.

Canada initially purchased six aircraft in a government-to-government arrangement with Washington, but one was shot down by Taliban small-arms fire in Panjwaii district, west of Kandahar city, last August.

To make up for the loss, Ottawa leased a D model American Chinook for the reminder of the mission. Defence officials refused to say at what cost.

If no buyers are found for the Canadian Chinooks they will be packed up and brought home when the combat mission ends in July, said the general who leads the transition headquarters.

"We're still looking to divest ourselves of them," Brigadier-General Charles Lamarre said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

"They're going to have to push that through and get them sold before we shut things down. If by chance we don't, we'll still have a responsibility to look after that equipment," he said.

The air force picked up the Afghanistan choppers intending to sell them once the combat mission ended. The decision was made, in part, because there was a new fleet of helicopters on order.

The Conservative government signalled its intention to spend $4.7 billion on 15 new Chinooks a few years ago. The new choppers are latest model - the F series - and have been modified with extra-large fuel tanks and improved sensors.

But Rob Huebert of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary said the older Chinooks could serve a vital role in Canada.

They could free some of the newer helicopters for operations in the Arctic, or even bolster the country's hard-pressed search-and-rescue fleet, he said.

"I don't think having too many helicopters is a bad thing," Mr. Huebert said. "The type of capability and the type of lift the Chinooks provide can always be put to use here."

Having the surplus Chinooks around would give the military the opportunity during the summer to station one or two of the newer long-range helicopters in the North, where the Harper government has said it wants a more robust presence.

The air force has long had availability and spare parts woes with its CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters, and operations of that aircraft have been restricted to the East and West Coasts.

Mr. Huebert said the extra Chinooks could slide into search-and-rescue operations in Central Canada, where the smaller Griffon helicopter has been covering the gap.

The cost of maintaining and operating the older Chinooks might be slightly higher, he said, but likely not prohibitive to the extent that other fleets would have to be shut down.

The air force has said it would be expensive to keep the D model aircraft.

The Defence Department was asked for comment, but refused to discuss the rationale for ditching the helicopters.



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