Canadian Helicopters for Pakistan Armed Forces

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2004 Volume 25 Issue 2

A major loophole in Canadian export controls will permit Canadian-built helicopters to be shipped to the armed forces of Pakistan. The shipments contravene export control guidelines and a de facto ban on Canadian military goods to Pakistan.

According to a leading US military industry periodical, the aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter Textron Canada is poised to export to the Pakistan military 26 Bell 412 utility helicopters worth an estimated $200-million. (1) An April report by the Defense Daily indicates the US government is close to the purchase of new military equipment on behalf of Pakistan, including the Canadian-built helicopters. It was not reported whether the helicopters will be shipped directly from Canada to Pakistan or routed through the Bell Helicopter’s parent company in Fort Worth, Texas. Regardless of the route taken, the helicopters will originate in Mirabel, Quebec, the sole assembly site for the Bell 412 model in North America.

The helicopters are included in the latest arms package provided to Pakistan by the United States government to bolster the “War on Terrorism.” In exchange for Pakistan’s efforts against Al-Qaida networks, in particular against Taliban groups on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the United States has reversed its stringent export control policies on Pakistan. Following 1998 nuclear weapon tests and a 1999 military coup in Pakistan, the US banned all weapons sales to the South Asian country. This situation quickly changed after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, when the Bush Administration elevated Pakistan to ally status. In less than three years Pakistan has been granted $600-million in US military aid and equipment, and additional weapons worth $300-million are under request. More than one US arms policy analyst has pointed out the dangers of these dramatic changes, noting that they fly in the face of long-standing US policies against nuclear proliferation and military coups and that they invoke the “blow-back” experiences of earlier US transfers to unstable regimes. (2)

The new arms deal, which will be financed through the US Foreign Military Sale program, awaits final approval of the US Congress. Since Congress approved the sale of 40 Bell 407 helicopters to Pakistan in September 2003, it is unlikely to turn down this latest sale. The Bell 407s, worth US $97-million, also would have been built in Mirabel, Quebec. However, according to the Defense Daily report, the Pakistan government declined the 407 sale before shipments began.

Civilian goods

The Bell 412 helicopters will be shipped to Pakistan as civil aircraft. Indeed, a unique commercial lease agreement reportedly is proposed for the deal so that the civil helicopters can be delivered more quickly. As civilian equipment the helicopters require neither export permits nor the scrutiny and time-consuming processing of the export control system. Yet, if the Bell 412 helicopters were classed as military goods (defined as goods “specially designed or modified for military use”), or as dual-use goods that are also subject to export control, it is unlikely the Canadian government would approve an export permit for transfer to Pakistan. As illustrated by the accompanying graph, the Canadian government has had a de facto ban on military goods to Pakistan since its nuclear tests of 1998. The graph, which is drawn from figures released by the Canadian government in its annual report on military exports, shows fluctuation in arms sales to Pakistan for the period 1990 to 1997, but with transfers reported in every year. In the subsequent four years, however (until 2001, the most recent reported period), no Canadian arms transfers to Pakistan have been reported by Ottawa.

A utility helicopter, the Bell 412 can carry up to 15 passengers as a troop transport and fulfill medical evacuation and rescue missions. There is no doubt that its use in operations against the Taliban would place it in the centre of “hostilities.” The helicopter transfer to Pakistan thus illustrates a major flaw in Canadian export controls. Because the Bell 412s are classed as commercial goods, they may be sold to the Pakistan military outside the export review process. As a result, Canadian equipment will be transferred for military end-use, in contravention of Canadian export control policy.

Closing a loophole

The expected Pakistan sale will not be the first time that this export control flaw or loophole has eased the shipment of helicopters and aviation equipment for military use to other countries in conflict. Canada shipped 12 Bell 212 helicopters from Mirabel to the Colombian police and military between 1994 and 1996 without export permits because the 212 helicopter – like the 412, a model based on an earlier military design – also received civil certification by Transport Canada. Over 50,000 and as many as 200,000 people have been killed by an armed conflict in Colombia that has persisted for four decades. During the 1990s Colombia was clearly involved in “hostilities” and it is unlikely that export permits would have been approved for the Bell 212 deliveries if the helicopters had been classed as military equipment.

The Canadian government must close an export controls loophole that allows equipment valued at tens of millions of dollars annually to pass without regulation to militaries around the world. These sales include transfers to governments involved in conflict or in human rights violations in contravention of current Canadian export control guidelines. It is not enough to confine controls to an “International Munitions List” that defines military equipment by technical properties; Canada must also control equipment that is transferred for final use by the military.

The objective of the military export control system is to enable suppliers to exercise discretion over, and take responsibility for, the supply of equipment that adds to the military capacity of the recipient state. Exemptions for helicopters and other equipment, based on technical distinctions that do not account for military use, undermine the intent of the regulatory system. A requirement for permits on the basis of the end-user would not impose any additional difficulty on the export control system and would better serve the intent of the system.




  1. According to the Flug Revue Online (, the Bell 412 EP in 1999 was valued at US $5-million. Adjusting for inflation and Canadian exchange, a current estimated value would be approximately $8-million Canadian.
  2. See, for example, “Pakistan Policy Sends Dangerous Signal,” Center for Defense Information, March 31, 2004
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