A SAR Solution?

Converting the Kestrel Could Help the Cormorant Fleet
Paul Dixon
May 06, 2015
By Paul Dixon
You may have seen the story that has been circulating media channels regarding how little money the federal government has been allocating our military to meet the obligations we put on them at home and abroad.

The popular thinking suggests that two per cent of national GDP would be a healthy sum for the military to do its job with decent equipment and enough personnel. The World Fact Book (put out by those nice folks at the CIA) says that in 2012, our American neighbours spent 4.35 per cent of their GDP on military spending, while Canada slipped at number 83 on the world scale at 1.24 per cent, just nipping out Peru and Kazakhstan.

There is a false economy in the way our federal government has approached its responsibilities to our military. Simply put, not spending money simply doesn’t save money – and ducking today’s responsibilities and allowing them to slip away into the future will only end up costing more. The military’s CH-149 Cormorant helicopters, for example, are reaching the point for mid-life updating, but the numbers game will put a crimp on operational SAR requirements. The existing fleet of 14 Cormorants operates from three bases, with SAR ops from CFB Trenton flown with CH-146 Griffons, in order to meet a basic requirement of two helicopters being in a state of operational readiness at each base at all times.

How many of our politicians understand that once any complex system enters service, maintenance is an ongoing requirement and as the machine (or combination of systems) ages in service, that maintenance will become more time-consuming and complex in nature? All things being equal, it’s a balancing act in keeping up with maintenance while meeting the number of aircraft on the starting line.

The short story is Canada didn’t buy enough Cormorants in the first place, but that’s something we can’t undo. Or can we? Ten years ago, the U.S. Navy chose the VH-71 Kestrel as the new presidential rotary-wing transport. Like the Cormorant, the Kestrel is based on the AW101 format.  When the Kestrel project was cancelled due to cost overruns, Canada snapped up the nine aircraft (in varying states of completion) at the fire-sale price of $163 million, with the intention they were to be used as a spare parts for the Cormorants.

At the time of acquisition, the Department of National Defence (DND) was adamant that this was a purchase of spare parts only and there was no intention of entertaining the notion of turning any of the partly-built Kestrels into Cormorants and adding them to the existing fleet. When I spoke with Jeremy Tracy, head of region with AgustaWestland Canada last year, he was quite clear in stating that his company was fully prepared to undertake the Kestrel/Cormorant conversion, but there was no action from the government side.

Now, the issue of the Kestrel/Cormorant conversion has surfaced again with the potential shortage of operational Cormorants due to the mid-life upgrades and again, Tracy has made it known that AgustaWestland Canada would be ready, willing and able to do the job. The response from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) side has been that there was a promise or commitment made at the time the aircraft were purchased from the U.S. government that they would only be used for parts. That’s interesting, because in most cases where a program is cancelled, it is the OEM that puts an embargo on disposing of the aircraft on the open market, but in this case, the OEM is more than willing to see the aircraft do what they were intended to do – and that’s fly.

Think about what the impact of four more Cormorants could do for Canada’s SAR capabilities. If you replace the Griffons at Trenton, you can let them get back to what they were intended to do. As shipping traffic increases during Arctic summers, you could move a pair of Cormorants up north to increase SAR response capabilities and send a clear message to the international community that Canada is serious about dealing with the responsibilities with asserting sovereignty over the North West Passage.

We need a firm commitment from the federal government to increase military spending on a graduated, annual basis until we reach that modest level of two per cent of the GDP. Yes, I am advocating an increase in federal spending and that can only come from one source – you and me. “Tax” is not a four-letter word, especially not when it applies to money that is being spent on Canadians, by Canadians and most importantly, for Canadians! You can pay now or you can pay later and paying later is really not something you want to contemplate.


Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


More in this category:  |  Remembering a SAR Hero »

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