Waiting for the Cyclones: A 21-year procurement odyssey?
The country’s air force is now projecting it will be 2025 before its long-suffering CH-148 Cyclone helicopter fleet is fully up to speed with all of the aircraft, pilots and ground crew needed for deployments — both at home and overseas.
The date for what’s known in the military as Full Operational Capability (FOC) will be almost 21 years after Paul Martin’s Liberal government signed a contract with U.S. defence giant Sikorsky Aircraft to deliver 28 state-of-the-art maritime helicopters.
- Cyclones delays could lead to chopper shortage as Sea Kings retire
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It will also be seven years after the last of the vintage CH-124 Sea King choppers is scheduled to retire after flying for over five decades.
‘It is really a case study in how not to acquire something’
– Retired colonel George Petrolekas, Conference of Defence Associations Institute
The timelines were released to CBC News as part of research into the country’s defence policy review.
Delays in the Cyclone program, which former defence minister Peter MacKay once described as the “worst” procurement in the country’s history, may seem routine.
But some defence experts are concerned what the absence of a fully capable maritime helicopter will mean for the military, in light of increasing Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic and recent plans by a number of Asia-Pacific countries to build bigger underwater fleets.
Canada lagging in maritime defence
“Canada needs an enhanced ability to detect submarines and counter them if necessary,” said Dave Perry, an analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Currently, we’re lagging in this area, and getting a fully capable maritime helicopter is crucial, along with maritime patrol assets and capable subs. If the FOC date is now 2025, the project has fallen behind, again, at a time when their [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities are needed more than ever.”
The last report on major Crown projects, tabled in the spring, said the Cyclone project would be completed and closed out in 2022.
“It is really a case study in how not to acquire something,” said George Petrolekas, a retired colonel and senior military adviser. “It’s a long saga that has to do with choices made by various governments across the political spectrum.”
It is also a cautionary tale for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as he resets the country’s defence policy.
Navy woes blunt impact of delays
The military would be in a lot more trouble with the slow roll-out of the Cyclones if the navy wasn’t in such dire straights, he added.
“We’re fortunate, in a way, because we have lost four-to-five ships, but we actually ordered a full compliment of helicopters for a navy that no longer exists,” said Petrolekas, of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
Over the last few years, the navy has retired both of its supply ships, two destroyers and is about to decommission a third warship. A fourth Tribal class destroyer was mothballed in the early 2000s because of budget cuts.
Petrolekas says if the navy “carefully husbands its resources” there should be enough helicopters to meet its requirements.
Another defence expert, John Orr, a retired Sea King pilot and a fellow at Dalhousie University’s foreign policy centre, suggested the public should look at the situation in context.
“To my knowledge, there was never a halcyon time when major projects marched smartly through all their major milestones in an orderly fashion,” said Orr, a former colonel and author of a history on the Sea Kings, in an email.
He noted in an article in Canadian Naval Review how there were technical problems integrating the Sea Kings into service during the 1960s and that program had “the luxury of sufficient numbers of knowledgeable personnel” and operated “within a coherent procurement system.”
Long-running corporate battles
The former Conservative government engaged in a long-running battle with Sikorsky, after the company missed the first deadline for delivery in 2008. A series of contract extensions and further missed deadlines resulted in the government taking a hard look, in the fall of 2013, into whether the troubled program should be ditched.
The Tories elected to stick with it and even doubled-down, announcing a fixed date of June 2015 to begin retiring the Sea Kings, which were still in service because of a decision by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in 1993 to cancel the first replacement program.
Under the renegotiated terms with Sikorsky, announced by Public Works in January 2014, the air force was promised Cyclones that would be “fully operational” by 2018.
Instead, National Defence now says it will have 12 helicopters outfitted with basic capabilities available that year.
‘There was never a halcyon time when major projects marched smartly through all their major milestones in an orderly fashion’ – John Orr, retired Sea King pilot
The company will begin delivery in 2018 of the remaining 16 aircraft, which are expected to have fully operational combat software. Helicopters will continue arriving until 2021, but it will take an additional four years before the fleet is fully capable of delivering what the government ordered.
“Although delivery of all 28 aircraft in their final configuration is expected to be completed by the end of 2021, full operational capability, which includes the [air force] having the full complement of Cyclone personnel available and trained to enable the maximum helicopter-detachment deployment capability on [navy] ships, is expected to occur in 2025,” said a statement by National Defence.
In a separate written response last week, defence spokesman Evan Koronewski said the Cyclones are expected to be available for deployment aboard navy frigates in 2018. Three of the warships have already been modified to receive them.