The Maritime Helicopter Project

Kenneth Epps

Author
Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2003 Volume 24 Issue 2

Ten years after cancelling its predecessor’s order for military maritime helicopters, the federal government is expected soon to formally request proposals for the replacement of the Sea King.

Three consortia plan to submit tenders in September for the $3-billion Maritime Helicopter Project (MHP) announced by then-Defence Minister Art Eggleton in August 2000. “Team Cormorant,” led by the European company Agusta-Westland and including Canadian companies Bell Helicopter Textron Canada and CAE Inc., are proposing a variation of the EH-101 helicopter. The EH-101 is the model selected in 1992 during an earlier procurement process by the Conservative government and cancelled by the newly elected Liberal government in 1993. The largest, most costly, and the only helicopter on offer with three engines, the EH-101 clearly remains the favourite of many Department of National Defence (DND) officials. Advocates cite the advantages of a bigger aircraft designed to fulfill the many roles – from naval anti-submarine warfare to on-shore transport – called for by project requirements. They also argue that, because the Cormorant search and rescue helicopter purchased by DND in 1998 is a variant of the EH-101, acquisition of the EH-101 would bring savings in maintenance and operation costs.

The second consortium bidding on the helicopter contract is led by the US-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Working with Canadian companies Bombardier and General Dynamics Canada, among others, Sikorsky is proposing the H-92 helicopter, a variant of its S-92 model recently developed from the company’s military H-60 Seahawk helicopter. The two-engined H-90 is the next largest in size and power to the EH-101 and Sikorsky officials claim it has similar or even superior capabilities.

The final candidate, and the one most recently announced, is the MH-90 helicopter, based on the NH-90 model produced by the European group, NH Industries. Lockheed Martin Canada leads the consortium proposing the MH-90, which in addition to NH Industries includes Thales Systems Canada. Lockheed Martin spokespeople say the two-engined MH-90, while a smaller helicopter, meets all the maritime helicopter needs using a “state-of-the-art” airframe.

Project specifications detailed in April 2003 were the sixth in a series of revisions since the 2000 announcement of the current maritime helicopter program. The current project contains three major elements: the provision of 28 sophisticated new helicopters based on certified “off-the-shelf” models, modification of the 12 Halifax-Patrol frigates that will accommodate the aircraft, and 20 years of servicing the helicopters and their equipment. If the project is awarded in 2004 as planned, the first deliveries of the maritime helicopters are expected in 2008.

The MHP is intended to replace naval Sea King helicopters first procured in the 1960s. Operating from the deck of Canadian warships for three decades, the Sea Kings were used primarily to monitor and threaten attack on Soviet submarines. Since the end of the Cold War the Sea King has been assigned many additional roles, including coastal and fishery patrols, environmental monitoring, drug interdiction, international peacekeeping support, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. This wide range of roles has been carried over into the requirements for the new helicopter. DND project documents emphasize the “multi-role” capability required for the MHP, and identify expectations for the helicopter corresponding to all scenarios to which Canadian Forces are expected to respond. The documents note the Sea King experience, which often required refitting the aircraft to meet different roles, and call for a maritime helicopter that “will have a multi-role capability without necessitating the installation or removal of mission specific equipment on a mission by mission basis” (DND 2003).

A lengthy history

The MHP began in 1986 as the “New Shipborne Aircraft (NSA)” project to replace Sea King helicopters. The following year a Defence White Paper cited the NSA as part of the program to counter the Soviet threat, with the new helicopters extending the anti-submarine role of Canada’s 12 new patrol frigates. Following an initial “project definition” contract in 1988, the program was merged with a requirement for new military search and rescue helicopters in 1991. Although the combined program of 35 shipborne and 15 search and rescue helicopters was presented as a cost-saving measure (via economies of scale), the Cold War anti-submarine role dominated the project. This led to the 1992 selection of the newly designed and sophisticated EH-101 helicopter built by the British-Italian consortium, Agusta-Westland, at a program cost of $5.8-billion.

Widespread public opposition to the cost drove the Conservative government to lower the program numbers to 43 and the budget to $4.8 billion. The reductions were not enough to preserve the program past 1993 elections, however, and the new government quickly cancelled the EH-101 contract. In one of his first announcements Prime Minister Chrétien noted that the EH-101 was “a Cadillac-type helicopter that is not needed because it is not based on the new reality of the Cold War being over” (Underhill 1993).

In a 1994 Defence White Paper the Liberal government returned to two helicopter procurement programs, one to replace the Labrador search and rescue helicopters and the other to replace the Sea Kings. The first program resulted in a 1998 contract to purchase 15 “Cormorant” helicopters, variants of the EH-101. The second program, renamed the Maritime Helicopter Project, moved more slowly and not without further controversy.

Media reports on the MHP have tended to focus on problems of the aging Sea Kings or on the “dumbing down” of the program by a reduction in the required specifications. The latter is allegedly to accommodate other competitors and to ensure its price will exclude the EH-101 from winning the contract, thereby saving the Prime Minister the political embarrassment of the government’s choosing the helicopter it cancelled in 1993.1 There has been little, if any, media attention to the tasks the helicopters are expected to fulfill and how these tasks might impact on the type and number of helicopters needed or the equipment they should carry.

The key assignment of the new maritime helicopter is to contribute to two naval task groups operating off the east and west coasts of Canada. Two of its three main roles are combat roles (“Above Water Warfare” and “Under Water Warfare”) and require a host of sensors, weapons, and self-defence equipment for tracking and fighting submarines and surface vessels globally under many sea and weather conditions. Refinements to the program have focussed on the combat equipment requirements, such as the number of torpedoes the aircraft should be capable of carrying.

Yet, the breadth of specified requirements for the aircraft, especially its combat capabilities, has not been uniformly supported within the government, including by senior members of the Department of National Defence. As early as 1996, there were reports that DND officials had reduced operational specifications for the MHP, with reductions in range and endurance requirements in particular (Hobson 1996). According to the Ottawa Citizen (Blanchfield 2001), the Vice-chief of Defence Staff told military officials to scale back the program again in 1998, noting that “he preferred a cheaper, smaller helicopter that would not have the ‘combat capability’ of the Sea King.” He also indicated that the budget should be no greater than $1.5-billion and the number about 20 aircraft. Two years later, as part of his August 2000 announcement of the MHP program, Defence Minister Eggleton stated that Canada’s military would be “getting helicopters that are more suited to the post-Cold war era, where the majority of missions are expected to be along the coast instead of over open seas” (Cryderman 2000).

The MHP illustrates the larger problem of a Canadian defence policy that is attempting to be all things to all people. By trying to retain combat helicopter tasks in particular, the maritime helicopter procurement process has been made more politically and economically difficult since it is apparent that few helicopters can carry all the equipment and meet all the tasks required. A reassessment of role priorities away from deep-sea combat and towards coastal surveillance and patrol duties could extend the options and lower the costs of the program.

 

Note

  1. See, for example, Blanchfield 2003.

References

Blanchfield, Mike 2003, “Report sheds new light on copper bid,” The Ottawa Citizen, June 16.

—– 2001, “Military told to expect second best,” The Ottawa Citizen, May 30.

Cryderman, Kelly 2000, “Replacing Sea Kings to cost $2.9B,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 18.

Department of National Defence 2003, “Statement of Operating Intent: Maritime Helicopter,” DND Document SOI Rev 3.0 – 24 Jan 03.

Hobson, Sharon 1996, “Canada’s New Helicopter Program: Recognition of a Continuing Need,” Canadian Defence Quarterly, March 1996, pp. 10-14.

Underhill, Brian 1993, “Chrétien Downs Helicopters,” Halifax Chronicle-Herald 1993, November 5.

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