Canada’s Maritime Helicopter Fiasco, Russia’s New Flankers and Carrier Costs

CH-148 Cyclone

CH-148 Cyclone

Canada is looking for alternatives to the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone as a replacement maritime helicopter. The Cyclone is years late, over-budget and still lacks key capabilities. A scathing independent assessment of the program by Hitachi Consulting recommends a program restructure, but apparently even the Canadian government can see that it will not be enough.

As I have argued elsewhere, the fault of this program was in its conception. The Cyclone was to be a single-buyer, small-order heavy maritime helicopter developed from scratch in a market already replete with proven competitors. Sikorsky offered a paper helicopter to satisfy Canada’s typically unique requirements, and Canada foolishly went for it.

Meanwhile, Sikorsky has other fish to fry, with upcoming US helicopter competitions.

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In other aviation news, the Russian Navy has confirmed its intention to buy “several tens” of the Su-30SM, the domestic variant of the acclaimed Su-30MKI multi-role fighter. While this fighter is an extremely capable air-to-air combatant, it also possesses significant maritime strike capabilities. What is not clear is how it will fit into the existing force structure, since the Soviet Navy’s old long-range strike capability was passed to the Air Force with the Tu-22M Backfire bomber regiments, and the Su-30 has no carrier-based variant.

Meanwhile, Sukhoi has been showing off its three prototype T-50 aircraft at MAKS 2013:

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The US Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford class carrier is considerably more expensive than the Nimitz class which preceded it, and the cost of the order has risen by $2.3 billion since the original order. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been looking into the program, and highlights the still-immature state of many of the key technologies of the design among other factors.

The British House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has even harsher criticisms for the contract under which the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers are being built, saying that it is “not fit for purpose” and “fails to provide industry any real incentive to control costs.” The Queen Elizabeth will be the world’s largest Short Takeoff Vertical Landing carriers when launched next year.

No Joy in Chopperville

CH-148 Cyclone

CH-148 Cyclone

The world bristles with ASW helicopters, from the AW-101 Merlin to the NH-90 to the Seahawk, all of them capable, proven designs. Of course, the Canadian DND has never felt any obligation to go with the cost-effective, proven solution- that’s why Canada chose none of the above and instead opted for the CH-148 Cyclone, a variant of the Sikorsky S-92, which has never been used in the role before.

This saga goes back to the waning days of the Cold War, when the Mulroney government ordered the then- EH-101 to replace Canada’s ageing Sea Kings. With the fall of the Soviet Union, such “unnecessary” spending became an election issue, and the order was promptly cancelled by the incoming Liberal government. After ten years and not a few Sea King crashes, it was realised that we actually did need a new helicopter.

Now, not for the first time, it seems clear that not only is developing a Canada-specific ASW helicopter an enormous and unnecessary waste of money, but Sikorsky can’t deliver the goods. Delivery was to have begun in 2008, and so far, all that’s been delivered are four helicopters that can’t perform their mission functions. The Ministry of Public Works has initiated an independent review of the program.

It is likely Canadian taxpayers will still be feeding the maw of this tragicomic beast of a procurement program for decades to come. But as the Sea King approaches its fiftieth birthday, it’s time to explore other options, for the sake of the crews if nothing else.