Helicopter shortage still hovers over forces

OTTAWA — Canada has been quietly, and unsuccessfully, scrambling to secure a handful of desperately needed medium-lift helicopters for Afghanistan, Canwest News has learned.

In recent weeks, the federal government has approached European allies and major U.S. manufacturers for four to six aircraft, on a lease or loan basis, but has had no luck.

The government plans later this year to award a sole-sourced contract for 16 new CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the U.S. defence contractor Boeing, but because the first of those helicopters is not due to arrive until 2011, the military wants a temporary solution to the lack of air support in order to lessen the exposure of Canadian troops to deadly roadside bombs.

The Manley commission has called on the government to secure medium-lift helicopters by next year as a condition for continuing the Canadian Forces combat mission in Afghanistan.

Now there is growing frustration within Defence Department headquarters over the delay in getting helicopters. Many are second-guessing a decision two years ago to pass on buying second-hand U.S. army Chinooks, while others are growing increasingly frustrated with the air force’s position to hold out for the new fleet of customized Chinooks, instead of trying to find less deluxe versions that could be retrofitted for the battlefield in the coming year.

“They are looking into options,” said a senior defence industry insider. “To accelerate the Chinooks or [by] going to other manufacturers to see what they have available or what can be made available.”

Late last year, the government asked Germany if it could lend Canada four of its CH-53 transports. Germany was unable to do without any of the 18 specially retrofitted aircraft it currently rotates through Afghanistan because they are already being heavily used.

Germany offered less deluxe CH-53s that Canada could have had retrofitted with special filters to cope with southern Afghanistan’s dusty climate as well as other features to protect the choppers from ground fire.

Upgrading the helicopters for Afghanistan could take anywhere from several months to a year.

Canada also approached Sikorsky Aircraft, the American company that makes the CH-53, but was told every aircraft the company has produced is now being used.

Some Defence Department insiders say the best option for getting a few new helicopters within the next year is to persuade Boeing to allow Canada to jump the queue on its current busy assembly line.

Boeing is now in the middle of delivering 141 CH-47s for the U.S. army and special forces.

Canada was able to speed the delivery of its new C-17 Boeing Globemaster cargo plane by persuading Washington to allow Canada to pluck a few of the C-17s off the assembly line.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled this week, in response to the Manley report, that he was prepared to push the U.S. government to allow Canada to jump the production line one more time.

“The reason for the delay in getting them is this is some of the most sought-after military equipment on the planet and there’s a lot of orders in for these,” Harper explained.

The prime minister said Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff, shares his view that the delivery of the new helicopters must be fast-tracked.

“That’s obviously part of the case we’re going to be making to NATO.”

A Defence Department source blamed delays on the air force’s desire to get a highly customized new fleet of the CH-47, instead of settling for a few “bare bones” versions of the helicopters in the short term.

“With the right amount of high-level political and military representation in Washington, we should be able to secure four to six airframes initially. Given that the Americans want us to stay in the south, they should be persuaded that giving up a few slots in the production line is a small price to pay to keep an important and trusted ally in the game,” said the source.

The Conservatives faced criticism in the House of Commons on Tuesday for not doing more to get the helicopters called for by the Manley report.

But Defence Minister Peter MacKay acknowledged that the government was already looking for helicopters, even though it has yet to sign a contract with Boeing.

“We have already well begun the procurement process,” said MacKay. “We hope, in keeping with the recommendations of the Manley report, to have that equipment soon and I can assure the House that the process is well under way.”

The Canadian Forces are also expected to release details on the leasing of long-range, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the Afghanistan mission in a month or so to replace existing, shorter-range Sperwer drones.

Last year, the air force recommended the purchase of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle but members of the Harper cabinet derailed that proposal, citing concerns that yet another large-scale defence contract would be awarded to a U.S. firm.

So the air force came up with a plan to lease UAVs for Kandahar.

Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Predator manufacturer General Atomics, said the company is waiting to see the how the Canadian government structures the lease proposal before deciding if it will bid.

“We’re anxiously waiting the [proposal] and we’ll make a determination once we go through it,” she said.

“In general we try to stay away with leases,” she added.

Nick Papiccio, vice-president of business development for the Quebec-based Rheinmetall Canada, said the firm is also waiting for the release of details on the leasing agreement. But it is interested in providing equipment to the winning bidder for ground support gear and controls as well as maintenance for such aircraft.

The company has experience working in Kandahar with its Sperwer UAVs. “Taking a new bird and integrating it quickly and seamlessly into the correct organization in Kandahar, we know how to do that,” said Papiccio.

David Hargreaves of the British Columbia-based firm MacDonald Dettwiler said he is aware of the potential tender and the company will decide when it sees the UAV proposal from government whether it will bid on the project.

Other aerospace executives said their companies won’t be bidding because leasing UAVs in a combat zone is not a practical solution.

In the past the Defence Department failed with previous attempts to fast-track the delivery of Chinooks and lease UAVs for Afghanistan.

In the fall of 2005, the air force also tried to move forward with a one-year lease of tactical UAVs for the Kandahar mission. Under that proposed lease, industry would have provided not only the drones but the personnel to run them.

But the plan had to be dropped after industry balked at the proposal. The main problem was that the $17-million budget the Canadian military had set aside for the lease was not enough.

In addition there were legal questions about the liability of the contractors operating a UAV in a combat zone, as well as concerns there would not be airfield space in Kandahar for the UAVs to operate from.

UAVs can be used to scout ahead on routes used by troops and try to detect insurgents planting roadside bombs or planning ambushes.