Greg Weston reports for CBC News:
Canada’s long-promised fleet of new Sikorsky naval helicopters, already four years late and $300 million over budget, likely won’t be delivered and ready for combat for up to another five years, informed industry sources tell CBC News.
Last month, Connecticut-based Sikorsky missed its latest contract deadline to finish delivering 28 sleek, state-of-the-art Cyclone maritime helicopters to replace Canada’s aged fleet of increasingly unreliable Sea Kings, now nearing 50 years old.
In fact, delivery of the new choppers hasn’t even started.
[. . .]
As of last month, Sikorsky had only provided a couple of prototypes that have no military mission systems, and aren’t certified to fly over water or at night.
The two helicopters apparently spend most of their time on the tarmac at Shearwater Heliport at CFB Halifax as “training aids” for ground mechanics.
The machines are so incomplete the Canadian government refuses to accept them as an official delivery of anything in the contract.
What is it about helicopters in particular that makes it so difficult and so expensive for the Canadian government to acquire? Here’s the sad chronology:
- In 1963, the CH-124 Sea King helicopter (a variant of the US Navy S-61 model) entered service with the Royal Canadian Navy.
- In 1983, the Trudeau government started a process to replace the Sea Kings. That process never got far enough for a replacement helicopter to be ordered.
- In 1985, the Mulroney government started a new process to find a replacement for the Sea Kings.
- In 1992, the Mulroney government placed an order for 50 EH-101 Cormorant helicopters (for both naval and search-and-rescue operations).
- In 1993, the Campbell government reduced the order from 50 to 43, theoretically saving $1.4B.
- In 1993, the new Chrétien government cancelled the “Cadillac” helicopters as being far too expensive and started a new process to identify the right helicopters to buy. The government had to pay nearly $500 million in cancellation penalties.
- In 1998, having split the plan into separate orders for naval and SAR helicopters, the government ended up buying 15 Cormorant SAR helicopters anyway — and the per-unit prices had risen in the intervening time.
- In 2004, the Martin government placed an order with Sikorsky for 28 CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to be delivered starting in 2008 (after very carefully arranging the specifications to exclude the Cormorant from the competition).
- Now, in 2012, we may still have another five years to wait for the delivery of the Cyclones.
Update: In the National Post, Kelly McParland tries to draw some useful conclusions from the longest-running Canadian comedy act:
If there is a solution to this farce it’s not easily identified. Canada desperately needs the helicopters and it is far too late to return once again to the drawing board. The blame is so widespread that politicians barely bother to bestir themselves to try: if Jean Chretien’s government hadn’t maliciously cancelled Brian Mulroney’s original 1992 purchase, a full decade might have been cut from the script, but there is no guarantee other mishaps wouldn’t have occurred. Ottawa’s only option now is to hound Connecticut-based Sikorsky relentlessly and mercilessly, recover every cent possible for its repeated failure to live up to its promises, and accept nothing less than full compliance with its contracted responsibilities.
The greater lesson lies in the nether world that surrounds military procurement. It’s a world where no promise can be accepted as reliable, no cost guarantee assumed to be binding, no contract treated as worth the paper it’s written on. The federal Conservatives should think long and hard on the Sea King saga as they push ever deeper into their own purchase of new fighter jets, whether the F-35 or otherwise. Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be well-advised to abandon his usual aggressive approach and tread warily. The uncertain costs, the shifting due dates, the obdurate insistence of the military mandarins on having their way, the determined stonewalling of the politicians : it has all the identifying markings of a Sea King re-make.
Update the second: On Facebook, Damian Brooks suggests that Kelly McParland is only able to see the humour because he hasn’t been close enough to the situation: “I’d be curious to know if McParland’s ever flown in one of our Sea Kings, with tranny fluid dripping down the fuselage, practicing autorotations ad nauseum (literally). I suspect not. If he had, I have a feeling he’d find the situation much more disgraceful and much less funny.” He also posted a link to this: