It's difficult to believe, but the Sea King helicopter fiasco has been with us for as long as Jean Chrétien has been prime minister, and will still be years from a conclusion when "le petit gars" finally retires. What began as a relatively simple, albeit expensive, plan to replace Canada's aging fleet of naval helicopters turned into a decade-long cavalcade of errors and omissions, exacer-
bated by political meddling.
The contract to replace the worn-out Sea Kings, which saw action during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, has been a millstone around Mr. Chrétien's neck from the moment he was sworn in as prime minister in 1993. Just a few hours after that ceremony, he cancelled the contract his predecessor Brian Mulroney had signed. "I'll take my pen and I will write zero helicopters. . . . That will be it," the new PM had said during his campaign.
But that wasn't it -- not by a long chalk. While the cancellation may have won political points for the Prime Minister, the financial cost of that decision quickly escalated. In addition to the $400-million that had already been spent preparing for the new helicopters, there was soon a judgment in favour of EH
Industries (the consortium chosen by prime minister Mulroney) for breach
of contract, which cost another $500-million.
Then came the years of waffling and indecision. First, the Sea King contract was split into two -- one for the body and one for the electronic equipment -- despite warnings that this would be unwise and expensive. Last year, the two were rolled back into one. Ottawa also altered its usual practice and said that it would accept the bid that came in with the lowest price, rather than the one that best met the requirements. Speaking to The Globe and Mail's Daniel Leblanc, former deputy minister of public works Raymond Hession called this "plain stupid."
As the years dragged on, and Sea Kings continued to fall from the sky, the nature of the contract was repeatedly fiddled with. Among other things, the tests the new helicopters were expected to meet were scaled back -- reducing the amount of lift they were expected to provide, the temperatures they could operate at, their ability to stay aloft with one engine gone, and so on. Some believe those new helicopters may not even provide the same level of service as the aging hardware they will replace.
There is substantial evidence that the revisions were made by the government to ensure that EH Industries would not be the only firm capable of making a bid. It appears the Prime Minister wanted to avoid the embarrassment of awarding the contract to the same firm he rebuffed a decade earlier -- an embarrassment he suffered with the search-and-rescue helicopter contract in 1998. The modifications to the Sea King contract made it easier for a French consortium, Eurocopter, to meet the specs.
Did those changes have anything to do with talks between the French government and Canada's ambassador to France, Raymond Chrétien -- the Prime Minister's nephew? The Chrétien government insists they did not, and says the new helicopters will meet Canada's needs. Colonel Brian Akitt, former director of the Maritime Helicopter Project, disagrees. He says the government meddled with the process for political purposes, to the point that it poses a "significant risk to a safe and credible operation."
Col. Akitt is no gadfly. He is the former commander of the Sea King squadron, whose pilots have described their 40-year-old helicopters as "10,000 nuts and bolts flying in loose formation." Mr. Akitt's men have been waiting for new helicopters since Mr. Chrétien first promised them in 1994, and each year the Sea Kings have grown more unreliable, so much so that fewer than half
the fleet may be airworthy at any one
It's hard to know what the worst part is: the 10 years that Canada has been waiting for new helicopters, the political meddling that prolonged the decision or the fact that Canada will likely end up with something similar to the original contract, after spending billions of dollars because of its cancellation. In the end, Mr. Chrétien bears the blame for all three -- and even as he prepares to leave, new helicopters are still years away.