|The versatile CH-146 Griffons are indeed workhorses, but they do have their shortfalls, mainly size and agility. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force)
Prior to Confederation, Britain was responsible for the defence of Canada through the presence of the British Army and units of the Royal Navy. After 1967, the Canadian Army gradually evolved from British units with the first permanent force being created in Kingston, Ont. in 1871. When the Northwest Field Force was dispatched to put down the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, it was the first time Canadian troops (a mixture of regulars and militia) had been commanded by Canadian officers.
The Failed Ross Experiment
The Boer War marked Canada’s first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war. It was a political hot potato for the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, establishing a pattern that would repeat itself many times over in years to come. While Canadians of British heritage supported the war, urging the government to send troops, most French-Canadians and immigrants of other nationalities weren’t convinced that Canada had any business in a war half-way around the world.
|The Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone has been much maligned as one of the worst procurement decisions of recent memory. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force)
Towards the end of the Boer War, a diplomatic tiff between Britain in Canada resulted in Britain refusing to supply any more Lee-Enfield rifles to the Canadian troops. Canada had no arms or munitions industry and had relied on Britain. Attempts by the Canadian government to entice British manufacturers to set up operations in Canada failed. This forced the government to turn to the Ross rifle, developed by Charles Ross.
It was an accurate weapon and a fine hunting rifle, but a poor infantry weapon, heavy and prone to malfunction when exposed to dirt.
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth were caught up in the rush to arms. The government had no plan in place for mobilization and the standing army of less than 3,000 exploded to more than 32,000 in the first two months of the war as recruiting centres were overwhelmed. The need to outfit and equip this many soldiers was an overwhelming task. The first two Canadian battalions sent overseas were clothed in shoddy uniforms and boots that disintegrated in the filth and muck of the trenches and armed with rifles that were next to useless. There was widespread outcry of war profiteering by suppliers such as Ross who were awarded contracts more on the merit of their political and social contacts than on the quality of their products.
There had been a considerable gap between the military and the industrial world before the First World War, but as warfare became increasingly mechanized, the gap closed. As Germany re-armed in the ’30s after Hitler’s rise to power, the British recognized the need to remove weapons production from the reach of enemy air forces and approached the Canadian government for assistance in 1937. Prime Minister Mackenzie-King, true to form, was hesitant to agree to the request, fearing public backlash. Eventually, in 1938, the John Inglis Company was awarded a contract to produce Bren Guns for Britain and Canada. There was considerable outcry, not over the fact that weapons were being produced, but because there had been no public bid process in the awarding of the contract, a situation that awakened sentiments of war profiteering from 20 years earlier.
A royal commission was appointed and concluded that while there may not have been any actual impropriety, there were inadequate controls in place. The findings of the commission resulted in the federal government creating a centralized procurement agency with civilian experience in purchasing to deal with both Canadian military needs and export demands, with the goal of economic and administrative efficiency. The Defence Purchases, Profits Control and Financing Act was passed which authorized the creation of the Defence Purchasing Board in July 1939. The DPB was replaced in 1940 by the War Supply Board, a full government department created to handle military procurement.
Canada now had a system in place to deal both with determining the needs of the military and with meeting those needs. The reality is that while Canadian shipyards and factories churned out ships, aircraft, vehicles of all descriptions and a wide array of arms and munitions, virtually everything was based on plans and designs provided by the British or Americans. Canadian industrial production boomed through the war years, but once the war ended, production shifted back to civilian needs as soldiers, sailors and airmen were demobilized.
Canada’s first military exposure to helicopters was in 1944 through a group of seven young Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) officers who had just completed their initial flight training and were sent for additional training on the Sikorsky R-4 at Floyd Bennett Field in New York. The training was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard as the U.S. navy professed no interest at that time. When their training was finished, the seven moved on to fly with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. At the conclusion of the war, when offered surplus helicopters by their Royal Navy counterparts, senior RCN officers declined the offer, saying they wanted jets instead.
At the conclusion of Second World War, the RCN was operating two Royal Navy escort carriers with RCN crews and RN air crews, with the intention of obtaining and maintaining two light fleet carriers in the post-war era. This plan was overridden by the government, and a single carrier, HMCS Warrior, was taken on. Unfortunately the ship had been designed to operate in the tropics and proved unsuitable for the harsh realities of Canada’s Atlantic environment. This led to the acquisition of HMCS Magnificent in 1948, which itself was replaced by HMCS Bonaventure in 1957.
Heading to the Skies
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) bought Canada’s first helicopters in 1947, seven Sikorsky S-51/H-5 aircraft for training, evaluation and search-and-rescue duties. The RCAF then ordered 15 Sikorsky S-55s for search-and-rescue duties as well as assisting in construction of the Mid-Canada Radar Line. The RCN bought 13 Sikorsky S-55s, known as the HO4S, which were initially used as plane guards on HMCS Magnificent and later evolved into ASW duties with HMCS Bonaventure.
|The dependable CH-149 Cormorant has been a search-and-rescue stalwart for years. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force)
While the Arrow captured the spotlight on the fixed-wing side of the equation, the RCN was working on the evolution of the helicopter in ASW duties, with a goal of operating aircraft around the clock at sea, realizing that the HS-O4 lacked the payload, performance and range needed to make this possible.
In 1959 two helicopters were short-listed, the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite and the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King, but as neither aircraft had actually flown yet, it was decided to await further U.S. navy trials before deciding. In December 1960, the RCN and Treasury Board announced that the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite had won out, but at this point the manufacturer abruptly raised the price of the aircraft by more than 60 per cent.
When further data from the U.S. navy revealed the Seasprite to be underpowered and overweight for the intended operations, the decision was made to go with the Sea King instead. The first four Sea Kings were built at Sikorsky’s plant in Connecticut, with the remaining 37 aircraft assembled at United Technologies in Longueil, Que.
The unification of the three branches into the single entity of the Canadian Forces was touted by Defence Minister Paul Hellyer as a way to achieve cost savings as well as improved command, control and logistical support of a unified military. Personnel and aircraft of the RCN and RCAF were now serving together under Canadian Forces Air Command. Under the new unified command, rotary aircraft were given the “CH” designators. The CH-113 was known as the Labrador in the Search and Rescue role and as the Voyageur in the tactical support role. By the 1970s, the Canadian Forces was using a number of different helicopters to fulfil a wide variety of missions, including the heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook, the agile CH-136 Kiowa and the versatile CH-135 Twin Huey, the latter of which was manufactured in Canada at Mirabel, Que.
Seeking a Cheap Fix
Politicians are quick to pounce on the Canadian military to find ways to trim budgets, and the Mulroney Conservatives saw their opportunity with a scheme that would see one helicopter fulfil the mission requirements of the Chinook, Twin Huey and Kiowa. Between 1992 and 1995, the Canadian Forces acquired 98 CH-146 Griffon helicopters, again built in Mirabel, a militarized version of the Bell 412 to replace approximately 150 helicopters. And while the Griffon is a fine aircraft in many regards, its many critics are quick to criticize it as not being big enough to replace the Chinook, nor agile enough to replace the Kiowa while being little more than a replacement for the Twin Huey.
What the Mulroney government had done was move ahead with one helicopter to replace the aging Sea Kings in the maritime ASW role, as well as the Labrador search and rescue helicopter. The EH-101 project in concert with Britain and Italy was turned into a political hot potato by the Liberals in the 1993 election and one of the first acts of Jean Chretien as prime minister was to order the cancellation of the order despite a $500 million penalty. Ultimately the EH-101 reappeared in 1998 as the CH-149 Cormorant when the Liberal government announced that it would purchase 15 “scaled-down” versions of the EH-101 for the search-and-rescue role, with the first aircraft entering service in 2002.
Entering the 21st century, Canada found itself supporting military operations in the remote and extremely hostile environment of Afghanistan.
The ability to deploy and support ground forces by helicopter was key to success and the Griffon helicopters were widely decried as being woefully inadequate for the task. The Chinooks, which had been sold off a decade before, were sorely needed. Short-term needs were met by surplus Chinooks from the U.S. military, which required a herculean effort from Canadian maintainers to bring them back to serviceable condition while at the same time the government sole-sourced a contract for new CH-47F Chinooks. Shades of the 1930s, the sole sourcing provoked howls of indignation in the media and in Parliament.
As the Sea Kings celebrate their 50th birthday this year, the wait for their replacement, the CH-148 Cyclone continues, three years after federal auditor-general Sheila Fraser stated, “National Defence underestimated and understated the complexity and development nature of the helicopters it intended to buy . . . resulting in significant cost increases and project delays.”
In the summer of 2012, Defence Minister Peter MacKay described the CH-148 project as “the worst procurement in the history of Canada,” though it should be remembered that the helicopters were originally ordered by a Liberal government and MacKay is dealing with his own issues around the CF-18 replacement project.
It seems the whole procurement process has become a quagmire, more about process or the appearance of propriety rather than actually getting the job done. The contrariness of our political process and the lack of a clear vision of this country’s place in the world are leading us into a dead end. It’s time Canadians stopped what they are doing and figured out just what we want to be so we can understand what it will take to get us there.