Not Good Enough: A Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopter sets down at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater, Nova Scotia, in 2010. Canada has rejected the helicopters, saying they fail to meet standards. (Canadian Forces)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — In what one top official is calling “the worst procurement in the history of Canada,” the government has refused to accept maritime helicopters being offered by Sikorsky under a $5 billion contract, arguing that the new aircraft don’t meet the needs of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The government has also hired a consultant to determine whether Sikorsky will be able to deliver the Cyclone maritime helicopter that the Canadian military contracted for in 2004. Recent comments by government ministers mark the first time they have openly questioned whether Sikorsky can follow through with the delivery of the 28 Cyclones, a maritime variant of Sikorsky’s S-92.
The first fully equipped helicopter was supposed to be delivered in November 2008, with delivery of all 28 helicopters by early 2011. But Sikorsky has yet to deliver a fully compliant helicopter.
The company has instead offered Canada what it calls “interim” helicopters — aircraft that are not fully outfitted with their mission systems. Improvements would be added to the helicopters over time. That offer, however, has been rejected.
On June 27, then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canada would be the first country to fly Cyclones “if and when we take full receipt of that aircraft.”
Former Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has accused Sikorsky of not living up to its contract. “The interim helicopter does not meet the requirements of the Air Force, so we are not going to take delivery of a helicopter that is not compliant,” Ambrose told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation June 25. Public Works will not say what sort of fee Canada would have to pay for canceling the contract.
Both MacKay and Ambrose were moved to new government positions July 15 as part of an overall change of Cabinet ministers but the impasse over the helicopters remains. MacKay is the new justice minister and Ambrose is the minister of health.
Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson declined to comment on the issues raised by Ambrose. But he noted the company is making what it calls steady progress on the Cyclone program.
He noted in an email that four “flight ready” aircraft are now at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater, Nova Scotia. Those are the aircraft the government has declined to accept.
“In Shearwater today we have four flight-ready Cyclone helicopters and a completely equipped training center ready to begin basic pilot training as soon as the government gives the go-ahead,” Jackson wrote. “We are very anxious to keep the program moving forward and remain in positive and productive discussions with the government on how we can achieve that.”
The Cyclones are to replace Canada’s Sikorsky-built CH-124 Sea King helicopters, which the Canadian Forces has been using since the 1960s.
Delays surfaced shortly after work began on the Cyclone project in 2007. Sikorsky won’t comment on the reason for the delays, but there were initial delays due to a strike at the Sikorsky plant.
Canada agreed to re-negotiate the delivery schedule and under a new deal pay Sikorsky CAN $117 million (US $112 million) extra for improvements to be made to the Cyclone, as well as changes to the long-term in-service support package for the aircraft. The improvements included more powerful engines as well as upgrades to various onboard computers. Sources said the integration of the onboard computers led to further delays.
Public Works spokesman Sébastien Bois, however, pointed out that under that revised agreement, Sikorsky was required to start delivering the interim maritime helicopters in November 2010 and the first fully compliant machines in June 2012.
“Sikorsky has yet to deliver any compliant helicopters to the Government of Canada,” Bois wrote in an email. “The government expects suppliers to meet their contractual obligations and we continue to enforce the aircraft manufacturer’s contract provisions, including those related to late delivery of maritime helicopters.”
In an October 2010 report on the status of the Canadian Cyclone project, then-Auditor General Sheila Fraser pointed to the program’s problems. “In our opinion, National Defence did not adequately assess the developmental nature of this aircraft, and the risks related to cost and the complexity of the required technical modifications were underestimated,” she concluded in her 50-page report, titled “Acquisition of Military Helicopters.”
Fraser pointed out in her report that the interim Cyclone helicopters are lacking capabilities in mission system software and the exchange of tactical data between ships and the aircraft. These are areas where there have been ongoing difficulties in the development of the Cyclone, she noted.
Sikorsky is the prime contractor for the project, while General Dynamics Canada Ltd. Ottawa, and L-3 MAS, Mirabel Quebec, are principal sub-contractors. General Dynamics is developing and testing the onboard mission systems while L-3 MAS will perform the in-service support engineering activities and will manage that support program.
In the meantime, the Air Force’s Sea Kings have been grounded indefinitely after a July 15 incident involving one of the helicopters at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater. As the helicopter landed after a routine training mission it tilted forward, damaging its rotors. “It’s precautionary until they can determine if this is a systemic issue with the Sea Kings or is something that is isolated,” said Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Len Hickey, spokesman at 12 Wing Shearwater.
In March, Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin told a Senate defense committee he wasn’t concerned about the delays with the Cyclones. “Every time I get through a program or a fleet, there are always some delays,” he explained during the March 25 hearing. “No matter what fleet you will be talking about, the fleet that does not have a delay is an exception.”
Blondin told senators he did not know when the Cyclones would be delivered. But he added that he is “comfortable in flying the Sea King for the next five years.”
Sikorsky’s competitors warned in 2004 that the firm would not be able to meet the original timetable. At the time, Gabriel Galleazzi, who was handling the bid by AgustaWestland for the program, questioned how Sikorsky would be able to deliver an operational helicopter within the required four years. “I am not aware of any development of the military or naval variant of the S-92,” he said. “It is in the mind of the designers but not yet designed.”
But Sikorsky’s Bruce McKinney said at the time the Stratford, Conn., company would have no problem meeting the Canadian deadline. “We are well positioned to take this aircraft, which has the latest technologies available in it, and navalize it,” said McKinney, then Sikorsky’s director for the maritime helicopter project.
Sikorsky engineers were already designing the helicopter with a folding tail and blades, allowing it to be stored in hangars on board Canadian warships, he added at the time. “All of those designs were anticipated from the very beginning as we developed this aircraft,” McKinney said. “Sikorsky has a long history of maritime helicopter development.”