POLITICS

Canada's Sea King Helicopter Transition Won't Be As Smooth As Ottawa Would Like

09/30/2015 04:47 EDT | Updated 09/30/2016 05:12 EDT

OTTAWA — Only four of the air force's venerable CH-124 Sea King helicopters are due to be written off between now and the end of next March, despite last June's splashy retirement party for the five decade-old workhorses.

National Defence is also spending more than $500,000 on a program to ensure the transition to the new CH-148 Cyclones is not a total culture shock for pilots and aircrew.

The Conservative government, which has struggled to deliver replacement maritime helicopters, went to great lengths last spring — before the election call — to demonstrate the Sea Kings could begin retiring in 2015 as promised.

It held a media event at the military air base in Shearwater, N.S., that included Diane Finley — public works minister at the time — declaring she was "delighted to begin putting these workhorses out to pasture."

In a recent opinion piece for the Ottawa-based political publication The Hill Times, Defence Minister Jason Kenney complained that the introduction of the Cyclones was being overlooked as a Conservative procurement success story.

But documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, along with several defence sources, say it will not be as smooth a retirement as the politicians would like it to appear.

There are approximately 26 Sea Kings still operating. Defence sources say the first two that were written off were already out of service after being damaged. National Defence would not confirm that, saying only that "to date, four aircraft have indeed been removed from flying status but have yet to be formally disposed of."

Although exceptionally well-maintained, technology aboard the Sea Kings is vintage, and in order to smooth the transition the air force quietly approved a program in 2013 to enhance the old helicopters with modern data links, sophisticated infrared and electronic optic systems and digital sonar processors.

"We can go cold turkey from the Sea King to the Cyclone," Kenney said in a recent interview. "There's going to have to be a phase-in transition, and that's why some of these life extensions have to happen."

The kits not only make moving to the Cyclone a less jarring experience, but also enhance the capability of the Sea Kings, originally built in the 1960s. A defence source with knowledge of the file said the kits will prove useful to keep the old birds flying, especially if Sikorsky is unable to deliver fully capable Cyclone helicopters between 2018 and 2021 as promised.

National Defence spokeswoman Dominique Tessier confirmed that $575,000 had been earmarked on the program, with half of it already spent, and that the air force will take delivery of the system over the next 12 to 18 months.

The Cyclones, originally ordered by the Paul Martin's Liberals in 2004, have had a troubled development history, with the U.S. manufacturer missing at least two deadlines over nine years to deliver the 28 helicopters.

The Harper government looked at other aircraft in the fall of 2013 before deciding to stick with the original deal under re-negotiated terms, which when announced by Public Works in January 2014 promised the Cyclones would be "fully operational" by 2018.

After months of negotiations with Sikorsky, those terms became having all helicopters delivered by 2018, but not all of them will have fully operational combat software until 2021.

"Under the revised delivery plan implemented with the amendments to the Maritime Helicopter Acquisition contract in June 2014, the helicopters will undergo continuous capability upgrades, with technical upgrades happening annually," said Tessier.

The Cyclones, in their delivered state, will be restricted to aircrew training, search and rescue and ground surveillance missions, according to defence documents. The software upgrades envisioned after 2018 will allow for operations in all weather at sea, including combat and anti-submarine warfare.

It will be next year sometime before the Cyclones are allowed to even participate in training exercises and the restricted operations mean the air force will be limited — even after 2018 — on the number of helicopters it can deploy.

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