Playing the Waitiing Game
By Peter Pigott
I’ll take one piece of paper, I’ll take my pen, and I will write zero helicopters,” Prime Minister Jean Chretien said with conviction.
By Peter Pigott
I’ll take one piece of paper, I’ll take my pen, and I will write zero helicopters,” Prime Minister Jean Chretien said with conviction. “That will be it, and I will not lose one minute of sleep over it, either.”
This was the response of Canada’s 20th prime minister who, during the 1993 election campaign, turned the purchase of 50 EH101 helicopters into a significant election issue, dooming Kim Campbell’s chances of being elected and serving a full term as the nation’s first female prime minister. Except for the Avro Arrow, and arguably today the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, no military aircraft has generated as much public debate as rotary aircraft. So, what is it about the procurement of military helicopters that is so controversial in this country?
|The interim maritime CH-148 at Shearwater is being used as a ground-based aid as part of the RCAF’s training program.
(Photo courtesy of RCAF)
It certainly hasn’t always been this way. When the Sikorsky Sea King entered service in May 1963, Canada was in the midst of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in the collective minds of the general public. Forty-one Sea Kings were purchased without controversy or even national attention. They were designed to be used on aircraft carriers and when those crazy Canucks perfected a process by which they could land on the minuscule deck of a heaving destroyer – even calling the vertical winch the “bear trap” – other navies could only watch in awe.
Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Peggy’s Cove, East Timor, the Manitoba floods, the Adriatic, Haiti and lately off the Libyan coast – through the years the stalwart Sea King served like the workhorse it was – and by now it is almost twice the age of the men who flew it.
But unlike diamonds, helicopters don’t last forever, and as early as April 1986, the government issued a Solicitation of Interest for the New Shipborne Aircraft (NSA) Project – the Sea King’s replacement. The three main companies responded: Sikorsky with the SH-60 Sea Hawk, EHI (formed by Westland and Agusta) with the EH-101; and Aerospatiale’s SA 332F1 Super Puma. Whoever the winner was, the first Sea King replacements were expected to become operational in 1995. Then, the new Liberal government cancelled the contract, nullifying nine years of work and paying a penalty of $478.3 million to do so.
|A Canadian Forces CH-124 Sea King helicopter lowers personnel to the ship’s deck during a transfer exercise on HMCS Ville de Québec in the Indian Ocean. (Photo courtesy of RCAF)
The subsequent Sea King Life Extension program, which cost taxpayers $71.5 million, allowed the machines to soldier on so that, by 2013, they will mark a milestone of 50 years in service. Flameouts, engine stalls, falling into the ocean or the muskeg, pilots dying in them – by now, everyone has heard the incredible stories of how the remaining 29 “geriatric” Sea Kings require 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight. Or how they are unavailable 40 per cent of the time. Or the day that, because the helicopter’s avionics died, the Sea King crew had to use a cellphone to get help . . .
In December 2002, to expedite the procurement, new Liberal Defence Minister John McCallum announced that the replacement would be acquired through a single contract for the airframe and mission systems, comprising the procurement of 28 fully integrated maritime helicopters, a simulation and training suite, integrated logistics support, and a 20-year in-service support contract. With inflation factored in, the project cost was set at $3.1 billion, not including the long-term maintenance contract.
Two years later, after “a thorough examination of the submissions,” (although critics claimed that AgustaWestland had been frozen out) Prime Minister Paul Martin selected the bid by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation for 28 H-92 Superhawk helicopters – to be called the CH-148 Cyclone in Canadian Forces service. When asked why the S-92 in its military version was chosen, a DND spokesperson replied: “The CH-148 Cyclone is designed such that its role will expand as the capabilities of this aircraft are exercised and fine-tuned. Additionally, its easily reconfigurable interior, large rear ramp, and suite of sensors will allow the Cyclone to switch between roles much more quickly, resulting in faster response times and a more effective platform, no matter what the mission.”
To meet the required capabilities specified for the CH-148 Cyclone, Sikorsky incorporated a number of modifications including fly-by-wire flight controls, blade and tail fold system, enhanced engines and drive system, as well as a sophisticated suite of mission sensors to provide a world-class robust, multi-role helicopter that the government hoped would serve Canada’s defence needs for years to come. In an updated version of the “bear trap,” Sikorsky would also provide 12 C-RAST helicopter haul-down systems for Halifax class (HFX) ships to accommodate the Cyclones.
The cost for the CH-148 Cyclones was tabbed at $1.8 billion with a $3.2 billion 20-year servicing agreement and then Defence Minister Bill Graham touted the deal, saying they were “the right helicopter for the Canadian Forces and the right price for Canadians.” Sikorsky also pledged to invest $4.5 billion in industrial activity in Canada over the next 20 years and teamed up on the contract with some heavy hitters – General Dynamics Canada of Ottawa and L-3 Communications MAS Canada of Mirabel, Que. The first Cyclone it promised would be delivered by Nov. 30, 2008, with others every 27 months. If that did not occur, the manufacturer would be paying heavy penalty fees. Finally, it looked as if this helicopter procurement was going to “fly.”
|To meet the required capabilities specified for the CH-148 Cyclone, Sikorsky incorporated a number of modifications including fly-by-wire flight controls, blade and tail fold system, enhanced engines and drive system.
(Photo courtesy of RCAF)
The S-92 is an advanced, medium-sized twin engined helicopter developed from the UH-60 Black Hawk that Sikorsky has been successfully building for the U.S. military and many other nations around the world. Such was Sikorsky’s confidence in the S-92 that it was the company’s bid for the U.S. Air Force’s $10 billion CSAR-X contract since cancelled, but one in which Lockheed Martin also entered with its US101 model based on the EH101.
Critics have pointed out that Canada would be the first military customer of the S-92 while the EH101 was already in use by with the British and Italian militaries. There were also rumours that the Canadian military preferred the EH101 to the S-92, but the government squashed that with the explanation that the EH101’s drawback was that it was too bulky to land on the Canadian Patrol Frigates – as the Sea King had. And even if it could, a major structural refit to the hangars would be required.
When this journalist asked DND why had the history of the Cyclone project been so troubled, the answer was: “Please refer to Sikorsky for more information as Sikorsky is responsible for delivering on the terms of the contract delays.” Subsequent research showed that it all began to go downhill for Sikorsky in 2006, when its workers went on strike at the Connecticut and Florida plants, subsequently causing a six-week strike delay in the production of the Cyclone.
Not delivering on time meant that the helicopter manufacturer would face anywhere from $36 million to $89 million in penalties and in January 2008 Defence Minister Peter MacKay swore that such fees would “kick in” if this occurred. But by the year’s end, Ottawa had toned down its rhetoric and agreed to accept six interim helicopters to be delivered in November 2010.
Further complications to the program occurred in March 2009, when an S-92 operated by Cougar Helicopters went into the ocean while ferrying workers to the offshore oil rigs off Newfoundland and only one of the 18 persons onboard survived. The Transportation Safety Board identified the cause as a broken titanium stud in the S-92’s gearbox oil filter assembly. And although Sikorsky announced that it had furnished replacement studs to all S-92, the media was quick to seize on the model’s defects. Could it be trusted in critical combat scenarios?
|To date, Sikorsky has promised that fully compliant helicopters will be delivered this year and all interim-standard helicopters would be retrofitted and delivered to DND/CF by December 2013.
(Photo courtesy of Sikorsky)
In August 2009, when the government of Canada announced it would acquire 15 CH-47F Chinooks to address the Canadian Forces medium-to-heavy lift helicopter requirement, critics wondered if this would become another Cyclone mess. Auditor General Sheila Fraser thought so in November 2010, when she slammed the procurement of not only the Cyclones but the 15 CH-147 Chinooks as well.
Fraser noted that the former’s contract award had not been “fair, open and transparent” and that the whole process was an $11-billion dollar mess with National Defence deliberately hiding the real cost. The Cyclones were not the “off-the-shelf” purchases that DND pretended they were, and Fraser told the media that, because the military had asked for so many changes in effect Sikorsky had to develop a new state-of-the-art helicopter.
“National Defence,” Fraser said, “underestimated and understated the complexity and development nature of the helicopters it intended to buy. The substantial modifications to the basic models resulted in significant cost increases and project.”
Not the Only Ones
If it was any solace, Ottawa wasn’t alone in bungling helicopter procurement. The Australian government had so mismanaged its contract with Kaman to provide it with Seasprite helicopters (also decades late and millions of dollars over budget) that today, the whole experience is taught in Australian universities in Ethics courses.
By 2010 the Conservative government was desperate enough to waive all penalties and negotiate a new deal that would allow Sikorsky to deliver a single “interim” incomplete helicopter for training purposes. Sikorsky was unable to do even that and in 2011, the government finally levied an $8-million penalty on it – a fine that remains to be paid. On Jan. 5, 2012, five “training ” Cyclones were promised with a single example delivered to CFB Shearwater, N.S. When asked about this, the DND spokesperson, who requested not to be named in this article, responded by email.
“As per the contract, the interim maritime helicopter at Shearwater is being used as a ground-based aid as part of the training program,” he said. “This training allows technicians to conduct hands-on practical training for various maintenance tasks, such as troubleshooting, and component removal and installation, as well as post-maintenance functional checks to ensure proper operation of aircraft systems. The aircraft has also been used to conduct maintenance demonstrations, which are a contractual requirement, to validate maintenance procedures and support systems.”
|The CH-148 Cyclone has been called “the right helicopter for the Canadian Forces and at the right price for Canadians.”
(Photo courtesy of Sikorsky)
Training of the initial cadre of technicians began in February 2011, and initial phases were completed in June 2011. Since then, maintenance demonstrations have been conducted using the Sikorsky helicopter at Shearwater. Further technician training and maintenance demonstrations are expected to occur in the next couple of months.”
To date, Sikorsky has promised that fully compliant helicopters will be delivered this year and all interim-standard helicopters will be retrofitted and delivered to DND/CF by December 2013. Sikorsky president Jeff Pino reiterated this message at Heli Expo 2012 in Dallas this past February, confirming that deliveries are on track for later this year. As to the CH-147Fs, production of the fleet is underway at Boeing’s facility at Ridley Township, Pa. and delivery to the main operating base at Petawawa, Ont., will begin in 2013.
The fact that the Cyclone has yet to take to the skies it didn’t stop RCAF chief Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps from praising the Cyclone when he appeared before the Senate’s defence committee in late February 2012. “The Cyclone,” he said, “is a world-leading maritime surveillance and control helicopter. It is probably the most balanced technology platform coming out from maritime helicopter. It’s what Canada needs to operate in the most demanding maritime environment in the world.” The RCAF, he maintains, will have operational capacity by 2014.
After all the twists and turns in the saga, one can only conclude that maybe the Cyclone is the world’s first “stealth” helicopter. It certainly is a golden example to illustrate the precarious nature of military aircraft procurement.
The CH-148 is a military variant of the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. It features a composite aluminium airframe with lightning-strike and high-intensity radio frequency pulse protection. It incorporates a wider four-bladed articulated composite main rotor blade in comparison with the S-70 Blackhawk. The tapered blade tip is angled downward to cut down on noise and increase lift. The helicopter can operate with modern high-tech naval frigates and is equipped with numerous safety features. Flaw tolerance, bird strike capability and engine burst containment are integrated into the design.