The chronically troubled purchase of new helicopters to replace the decades-old Sea Kings has again saddled the federal government with costly delays in the delivery of the new choppers.
The Department of National Defence was forced to spend $700,000 last year to undo portions of a $4-million renovation project on one of its frigates to deal with the delays in a project Defence Minister Peter MacKay once called the “worst procurement in the history of Canada.”
DND was in the process of converting the flight deck on HMCS Regina to welcome the first of 28 new Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopters, the long-awaited replacements for the Sea Kings. At that point, about 80 per cent of the work had been completed on the frigate, at a cost of $3.6-million, according to government officials and documents obtained under Access to Information.
However, the Cyclone project was once again delayed last year, adding a new round of confusion to the complex project that was launched in 2004 and should have led to the arrival of new helicopters in 2008. The $5.7-billion project is now in a state of flux, still with no precise delivery schedule in place.
When the government decided to send HMCS Regina to the Arabian Sea last year, the renovations to the vessel’s flight deck had to be halted and reversed in order to bring a Sea King on the mission.
“A decision was made to reconvert HMCS Regina’s flight deck to allow for Sea King operations and facilitate her to deploy on [Operation] Metric with a high readiness helo capability,” said a briefing note obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The document added that DND spent $672,000 to cover the cost of the “retro-fit actvities” on HMCS Regina.
According to DND, it will eventually have to spend close to $1-million to undo the recent changes and finish the work to allow a Cyclone to one day embark on the vessel.
“It is estimated that an additional $900,000 worth of work needs to be done to complete the conversion so that HMCS Regina will be completely capable of supporting a Cyclone,” DND spokeswoman Jocelyn Sweet said in an e-mail. “A notable amount of the original conversion work was able to be retained, and therefore does not need to be repeated.”
While heavily censored, the documents released under Access to Information showcase the problems that have been created by a series of delays in the delivery of the Cyclone helicopters.
A briefing note prepared last July for Mr. MacKay said that U.S.-based manufacturer Sikorsky was overly optimistic when it signed a contract with the previous Liberal government in 2004 to deliver new helicopters within four years. Instead of buying an off-the-shelf aircraft, the government of the day opted for what is frequently called a “paper aircraft” that was still in the design stage.
“A more realistic time frame for developmental aircraft such as the Cyclone, as demonstrated repeatedly in other international programs, has been 10 years due to the significant complexity of these weapon systems and their software and stringent test requirements,” the briefing note said. “Correctly or not, Sikorsky contractually agreed to a 48-month delivery schedule.”
The company quickly 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, Sikorsky agreed to start delivering fully compliant helicopters by June of last year.
However, those helicopters were not delivered and their deployment with the Canadian Forces remains far off on the horizon. In the meantime, the government is waiting for the delivery of “interim” helicopters that will offer limited capabilities, to be used mainly for training purposes.
According to the briefing note prepared for Mr. MacKay, the “interim” helicopters will “lack most of the software required to operate the complex sensors and weapon systems in an integrated manner as required by the contract.”
On the other hand, the briefing note said that the “aircraft hardware and flight control software and the majority of the aircraft flight testing are complete.”
Sikorsky and the federal government have been vague about the problems with the Cyclone program, but it is clear the company has struggled 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.