Ottawa bought 15 Chinook helicopters Monday after three years of delays that pushed back the delivery to 2013, two years after the end of the Canadian Forces' mission in Afghanistan.
The purchase prompted a debate over the relevance of the slow-moving procurement and the Conservative government's handling of the $5-billion contract.
Shortly after coming to power in 2006, the Harper government said the transport helicopters would protect Canadian troops from the dangers of roadside bombs in places like Afghanistan.
"The helicopters … will reduce cases in which our men and women in uniform must drive overland, exposing themselves to the risk of ambush, land mines and improvised bombs," then-defence minister Gordon O'Connor said at the time.
However, the government announced Monday the large helicopters will only enter operations in four years, well after the scheduled 2011 pull-out of Afghanistan.
The seven-year delay between the initial announcement and the first delivery has forced the government to change its narrative and emphasize the domestic usefulness of the helicopters, which are built by Boeing.
"The new CH-147F helicopters will be used to assist civil authorities in responding to emergencies such as floods, forest fires and earthquakes, helping to keep Canadians safe and secure," the department of National Defence said in its information package.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay added: "These helicopters are key to keeping Canadians safe and secure by giving our military a robust ability to operate in remote and isolated areas and respond to disasters or missions both at home and abroad."
Opposition critics said that Ottawa has already obtained six second-hand Chinooks from the Americans for use in Afghanistan, and doesn't need to buy more of them for vague post-2013 purposes.
"This is not a good example of proper planning and proper use of taxpayers' money," NDP MP Jack Harris said. "We're trying to solve a problem that we are not expecting to exist."
Liberal MP Denis Coderre blasted the government for refusing to hold a full competitive process to purchase the helicopters, given that the needs of the Canadian Forces have evolved since 2006.
"This contract is full of holes and raises many questions," Mr. Coderre said.
However, University of Calgary military expert Rob Huebert said Canada will be involved in foreign missions for years to come and will be glad to have the troop-carrying Chinooks.
"Are we going to be in another crisis by 2013, akin to Afghanistan? Our history says yes," Mr. Huebert said.
Fen Hampson, an expert in foreign policy at Carleton University, said the government has "recalibrated the mission to justify the purchase," but he said the helicopters are well-suited to modern peace operations.
"Assuming we deploy in the future in Africa or elsewhere, those helicopters would certainly serve a useful purpose," Mr. Hampson said.
The Canadian Forces requested a number of changes to the basic Chinook F-model, doubling the size of the fuel tanks to 6.5 tonnes and adding infrared sensors to protect them from shoulder-launched missiles, among other things.
Having struggled to fit the purchase into the initial budget, government officials confirmed Monday they are purchasing one fewer helicopter than initially planned in 2006. Mr. MacKay, who announced the deal in Halifax, said the helicopters will benefit from the greater fuel capacity and an upgraded electronic system.
"What we will be receiving with 15 aircraft is actually a more advanced aircraft," Mr. MacKay said.
The government said that the purchase will also help the Canadian economy, given that Boeing will service the helicopters in Canada and must invest the full value of the contract in Canada.
"Our government is committed to generating the greatest amount of economic benefit for Canadian industry and the economy at large," Industry Minister Tony Clement said.
With a report from The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error