Canada will lease up to eight Russian-built helicopters to ferry supplies around the battlefield in Afghanistan until it gets new U.S. choppers, Defence Minister Peter MacKay says.
It is a stopgap measure meant to get Canadian army supply convoys off the bomb-laced roads of Kandahar, where explosives have been taking an increasingly deadly toll.
Securing helicopter transport was a principal condition of the Manley commission report on Canada's future role in Afghanistan last winter and a key caveat of Parliament's extension of the combat mission until 2011. The Conservative government was given until February, 2009, to come up with the helicopters and a flight of unmanned surveillance planes.
A $375-million deal to acquire six CH-47D Chinooks from the U.S. Army has been worked out, but those heavy-lift aircraft will not arrive until late this year - or early next.
In the meantime, Mr. MacKay said, the Defence Department has worked out a lease involving "six to eight" Russian-made Mi-8 choppers.
The former Soviet-era helicopters "have similar capacity to a Chinook," Mr. MacKay told reporters heading yesterday into the Conservative caucus summer retreat in Lévis, Que.
"So they're heavy-lift. ... They'll be used to transport materials along the same routes, performing much the same purpose [as]the Chinooks would."
The Mi-8s are, in fact, considered a medium-lift helicopter and date back in their original design to the 1960s. They were a familiar sight in the skies of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
Mr. MacKay would not say what former Soviet Bloc country - or private company - would provide the aircraft, nor was the cost of the lease made public.
An official in the minister's office said a detailed formal announcement will be made next week.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan has suffered from a shortage of troop- and supply-helicopter support.
The military alliance was put in the embarrassing position late last year of approving the lease of private helicopters and fixed-wing planes for supply missions at remote desert and mountain-top bases.
Member countries were unwilling to risk their own aircraft and crews on perilous missions.
The Canadian army is one of the only major troop-contributing countries in Afghanistan without its own dedicated helicopter support and the Conservatives have struggled for over two years to acquire U.S.-made CH-47s.
If the leased Mi-8 helicopters come from another NATO country, such as Hungary or Slovakia, they would be able to carry both troops and equipment.
But Mr. MacKay's careful choice of words and reference to "materials" suggests the rentals will likely belong to a private company, a defence analyst said.
"They're not certified to transport our personnel, except of course in an emergency, so they would be leased to transport equipment only," said Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations.
Last winter, Poland offered Canada access to two of its Mi-17 battlefield transport helicopters, part of its increased commitment to the Afghan mission.
They were expected to arrive this summer, but military officials have privately expressed concern about availability.
Polish special forces soldiers operating in Kandahar would have first call on the choppers, not Canadians.
Another key condition for remaining in Afghanistan, the purchase of unmanned surveillance drones, is also well in hand, Mr. MacKay said.
A deal, possibly worth $100-million, to lease a flight of unmanned aerial vehicles - or UAVs - from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. and Israeli Air Industries Ltd. was expected to be approved this week by the federal cabinet.