09/06/2013 01:14 EDT | Updated 11/06/2013 05:12 EST

Timing of acquisition unclear if Ottawa changes course on maritime helicopter

HALIFAX - The head of the Defence Department's procurement section said he doesn't know when the military could have a new maritime helicopter in place if Ottawa abandons the CH-148 Cyclones as it seeks alternatives in the long-delayed program.

Rear Admiral Pat Finn said at a security meeting in Halifax on Friday that the timeline is unclear now that the federal government is looking at other options to replace the air force's aging fleet of Sea Kings.

He described the latest development as part of a multi-track process with the government assessing other assets that might better suit the military's maritime needs while remaining in talks with the Cyclone's manufacturer, Sikorsky.

"If there to be a change of direction ... we would have to work at what's the other solution, what's the different approach and I wouldn't be able to give you any kind of schedule at this point," Finn said following a speech updating the military's procurement programs.

"But we want to make sure that we get the capability that the navy needs and the air force operates on their behalf."

Sources revealed Thursday that a military team visited a southern base in the United Kingdom recently to look at Royal Navy HM-1 Merlin helicopters.

A spokeswoman for Public Works Minister Diane Finley says the government is looking at options "other" than the troubled Cyclones, which are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over-budget.

Finn said this latest development should put pressure on the company to deliver on its contract to deliver a total of 28 aircraft.

Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said the company's singular focus remains on working closely with the Canadian government to deliver a world-class maritime helicopter.

"We have a dedicated team of senior executives, experienced engineers, technicians and support staff working with the Canadian government to deliver the world's most technologically advanced and capable maritime helicopter to the men and women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces," he said in an email statement.

"We continue to make strong and steady progress."

Jackson noted the initial training for Cyclone pilots and maintenance crews has started at Shearwater, a military base in Halifax.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats called on the federal government to work with Sikorsky to sort out their differences. The party's defence critic said it would be a mistake to cancel the contract especially when a draft independent evaluation of the program says it can be fixed.

"The Conservatives are as much to blame for this mess as the Liberals and they must take responsibility for their poor record on procurement," said Jack Harris.

"Let's not forget, in 2008 they paid Sikorsky an extra $117 million to change the design of the choppers, leading to yet further delay."

Sikorsky has publicly pressured the government to formally accept four test helicopters at Shearwater with the current configuration, which does not allow the aircraft to perform all of the missions expected.

The company promises to deliver software upgrades — known as blocks — on a regular basis until the helicopter is mission-ready.

That is something Ottawa has refused to do because it would be a tacit acknowledgment that the aircraft was actually in development and not off-the-shelf the way the 2003 tender advertised. Such an admission could open the door to lawsuits by competitors.

If the federal government were to pursue the AugustaWestland-built HM-1 Merlin, defence industry experts say the aircraft could be on the flight line and initially operating within 48 months of a contract signing.

Two of the big questions hanging over such a move would be whether Canadian air force officials would be happy with the current British operating system on the aircraft or whether they would demand changes.

The other concern, according to defence industry insiders, relates to whether AugustaWestland could deliver enough industrial offset benefits to Canadian companies to satisfy the federal government, since the Merlin is already in production and well-established outside of Canada.

So far, Sikorsky owes just under $86 million in penalties to the Canadian government.

— With files from Murray Brewster in Ottawa