Thu Sep 29 2005
By Dianne DeMille and Stephen Priestley
In February, Canada will be sending an expeditionary force to the Pakistan-Afghan border to take part in combat under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The question is: Are the Canadian Forces fully equipped for this mission?
Defence Minister Bill Graham admitted in a Canadian Press report Sept. 14 that the forces won't have all the equipment that they need. "Heavy helicopters, for example -- we don't have any at the moment. They will be furnished either by the Dutch, the British, or the Americans, or by other allies."
According to the article, the last time the Canada participated in OEF, our combat troops "relied exclusively on U.S. Chinook helicopters to get them in and out of battle zones, as well as to resupply them. The arrangement proved unsatisfactory, with the [Canadians] inevitably shuffled to the bottom of the Americans' overloaded priority lists. On one mission, [Canadian personnel] began running out of food and water before they were resupplied."
Canada has no Chinook helicopters because the Mulroney government sold them to the Netherlands. Thus, the Dutch will be there on the Pakistan-Afghan border, fighting alongside us, killing Taliban resurgents, using our ex-Chinooks. Canadian Forces may have to beg for a ride.
Sometimes usable, necessary assets are more valuable than the money you can get from selling them.
Shortly after becoming Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rick Hillier made the acquisition of medium-lift helicopters a priority. The aircraft he had in mind was the Boeing CH-47 Chinook. This is the workhorse troop transport and re-supply aircraft required for modern, highly-mobile warfare. The Chinook can carry up to 44 fully-armed troops, it can also sling cargo from up to three belly hooks. Ungainly as the Chinook might appear, its unusual features give it a distinct advantage in southeast Afghanistan. In the mountains along the border, the air is thin, and summer temperatures can reach 50 C. In such 'hot-and-high' conditions, turbine engines lose power and rotor blades claw for lift. Most helicopters begin to lose the stabilizing effectiveness of their tail rotors. The counter-rotating Chinook, however, has no tail rotor.
The twin-rotored configuration bestows other operational advantages on the Chinook. When troops use the aft loading ramp, the spinning blades of the rear rotor are safely high above them. The twin rotors also give the Chinook great stability. Skilled pilots can hover with only the rear landing wheels touching the ground to facilitate unloading. Chinook pilots in Afghanistan routinely use this technique to offload on uneven ground, or even onto rooftops.
Minister Graham announced that it was "unlikely, given the nature of military procurement, [that] we would be able to acquire anything" in time for the February 2006 deployment, beyond some isolated pieces of equipment. Indeed, much of the money for badly-needed CF equipment is coming from 'operational contingency' funds. This ad hoc approach to purchasing can get minor items of new equipment into the field quickly, but it is also a tacit acknowledgment that the "official" procurement system has broken down completely.
Money is not the biggest problem here -- it is timing. With a little over four months to go before Canadian troops return to combat, Chinooks are suddenly a priority. Air Staff have announced a plan to dispense with competitive bidding and speed up procurement of new aircraft -- including 20 new Chinooks. The trouble is, there are none to be had, not even for ready money. Everyone wants them.
Given that Chinooks are currently unavailable to the CF, what are the options before the February deployment?
First, temporarily use Canada's 15 CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters. The Cormorant is the closest in capabilities to the Chinook among aircraft already in service. These Cormorants are really utility transport helicopters adapted for search and rescue. As troop carriers, they could carry 30 fully-equipped soldiers plus crew. A powerful three-engined helicopter, the Cormorant can easily cope with 'hot-and-high' conditions and lifting heavy sling loads.
Canadian Forces crews are already fully trained on the Cormorant, so redeployment involves little more than a coat of paint and a tranfer of personnel. Canada owns these helicopters, so it is a simple command decision -- no need to run the procurement gauntlets of cabinet, Public Works, Treasury Board, etc.
The Cormorants, however, are having reliability problems and rapidly chewing through their parts supply. In addition, replacement helicopters would need to be found for search and rescue.
There may be no ready fix to the reliability problems. So, Defence could simply buy as many tail rotor bits, and whatever other spare parts we need, and just get the job done.
Finding replacements for the search and rescue role is the easy part. Most other countries farm this work out to civilian contractors. (After all, as traumatic as it may be to be lost in the wilderness, or find oneself aboard a foundering ship, such events are not really threats to national security.) One of the major international suppliers of contracted civilian SAR services -- helicopters and crews (including SAR technicians) -- is CHC based in St. John's. As it happens, CHC also features in our next suggestion.
Second: Contract civilian medium-lift helicopters to fill in, until the Chinooks arrive.
When Canadian Forces were involved with the UN Stabilization Force in Bosnia, medium-lift was provided by Russian-made Mil helicopters under a lease organized by Newfoundland's CHC. When the mission in Bosnia came under NATO control, the leased aircraft were replaced by similar Mil 17 helicopters from the Czech Air Force.
Leased Mil 17s (and earlier Mil 8s) are already at work in Afghanistan. A "wet lease" is the typical arrangement -- ie: leasing the helicopter complete with flightcrew and fuel. Defence is fully familiar with such deals; it's how it was able to lease those enormous Russian-made strategic transport aircraft.
The upside: Immediate availability and general Canadian familiarity with the capabilities of the Mil. The very low cost of Russian-made equipment also means that such a lease will take only a minor bite out of savings for future Chinook purchases. The downside: The Mil is smaller than both the Cormorant and the Chinook. A realistic troop load for the Mil 17 is 24 combat-ready soldiers. The external sling load is only 3,000 kilograms -- two-thirds that of a Cormorant, and less than a quarter that of a Chinook.
There is also the uncertainty of civilian pilots going into a combat zone. Civilian Ukrainian and Russian aircrews flying into Sarajevo were willing to take almost unbelievable risks. But can such bravery be absolutely relied upon, even with a Canadian commander sitting in the 'jump seat'?
There is one other Mil 17 option with a Canadian connection -- a lease-to-own arrangement. Kelowna Flightcraft has helped develop a modernized version of this helicopter, the Mi-17KF, which features a fully western cockpit and rear-loading ramp.
These westernized Mi-17KF helicopters are produced in the Mil factory in Kazan, Russia -- a 3,000 kilometre flight to Kandahar. Compare that with the CF's two-day jet flights from CFB Trenton, doglegging through the Persian Gulf.
Obviously, at the end of the lease, Canada would gain the assets. Total purchase price is important to the cash-strapped Canadian Forces. Current prices for new Mi-17s are listed at just over $5 million US -- a fifth the cost of replacement Cormorants, a tenth the likely cost of Chinooks.
The third and final option is to follow the Air Force's advice and "hold out for the best."
The upside: the Chinook is the best medium-lift helicopter. One wonders why the Air Force sacrificed their Chinooks when Mulroney's hatchet men came calling. There were other less critical aircraft that could have been offered up.
The downside: In the short-term, this means relying on our long-suffering allies to transport Canadian troops in their Chinooks. When a procurement opportunity finally comes, global competition for Chinooks will be fierce and prices will climb. Maybe Defence will be able to buy new or rebuilt Chinooks before the shooting stops in Afghanistan. Probably not.
So, the immediate options before Gen. Hillier reveal a tough choice. He can (1) order a coat of tan-coloured paint for the 15 SAR Comorants, (2) lease (or lease-to-own) Russian Mil 17s, or (3) beg-and-borrow allies' Chinooks until the Air Force is completely happy with its latest shopping list. The purpose of an analyst is to present options (however meagre). It will be up to Gen. Hillier to make the final recommendation to the defence minister and his cabinet colleagues.
The real question is this: Are Canadian citizens content to send their Forces into one of the most dangerous parts of the world without adequate support equipment?