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Medium-Lift Helicopters in Afghanistan  –  CASR Op-Ed  –  November 2010

Canadian Medium-Lift Helicopters in Afghanistan — Five Years Later
Updating Hillier's Hopes for 'Honking Huge' Helicopters for Kandahar


Dianne DeMille & Stephen Priestley
A little over  five years ago, CASR staff  reviewed the medium-lift helicopter options available to then-Chief of  Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier on the eve of  the Canadian Forces' combat deployment to Kandahar. That combat mission is now six months from completion and  leased Russian choppers flown by Canadian Forces aircrews have put medium-lift helicopters back in the headlines again. It is time to update that October 2005 Canadian helicopter options review.

Going over those options is important as much for what it reveals of  rationales for inaction as for the motivations behind DND's procurement moves through that five-year period. However, before reviewing the 2005 options, it is equally important to get up to date with CF helicopters active in Afghanistan and  how they got there.

"You may ask yourself, ... how did I get here?  Letting the days go by ... Same as it ever was."

In September 2005, then-Minister of National Defence, Bill Graham, acknowledged that the CF would not have all of the equipment it needed for the deployment to Kandahar. Some of these needs would be met by Immediate Operational Requirement equipment purchases.  Such IORs circumvented much of the defence procurement bureaucracy but also the competitive bidding. As such,  IORs put equipment in the field rapidly (RG-31 Armoured Patrol Vehicles and  M777 howitzers being the best examples) but, without competitive bidding, this approach to military procurement also became a political  football  for opposition parties  and a target  for the OAG.

Other than blast-resistant vehicles,  medium-lift  transport helicopters were the critical missing element for the February 2006 deployment. MND Graham assumed that the needed helicopters "will be furnished either  by the Dutch, the British, or the Americans, or by other allies."  Such a helicopter 'pool' was formed to meet NATO/ISAF transport requirements. But, even now, the NATO/ISAF troops remain short of medium-lift helicopters. And  it transpired that relying on allies to furnish helicopter transport was enough to permit those allies to accuse Canadians of wanting a 'free ride'  –  even as Canadian troops bore the brunt of  the fighting in Afghanistan.

The outgoing Liberal government had little choice but to rely on Allied assets. By the time the Canadian troops were fully-operational in Kandahar, Stephen Harper was Prime Minister.  The incoming Tories also preferred relying on our Allies for tactical helicopters until  CF Chinooks arrived (the Conservatives having made strategic transport their top priority for reasons more than a little tricky to explain). Nonetheless, their decision was made – wait for the CH-147F. [1]

"So,  how's that working out for you?" – Post-Mortem on the Waiting Game for Helicopters

Intentions and events are always at odds. With the full benefit of hindsight, 2006 procurement priorities now appear somewhat bizarre.  In place of  transport helicopters, DND and Canadian politicians were obsessed with getting G-wagons into service.  Once the extreme vulnerability of such utility vehicles was revealed,  the tactical advantage of getting Canadian troops off of IED-lined Afghan roads should have been apparent. Unfortunately, Canadians moved slowly.

Content with using that NATO/ISAF helicopter 'pool' to transport CF troops in Afghanistan, the Harper government proceeded with a long- term solution, its Medium-to-Heavy-Lift Helicopter Project. In June of 2006, an Advance Contract Award Notice was published announcing the government's intention to award Boeing an MHLH contract for 16 new CH-147F Chinooks. This ACAN anticipated a contract by July of 2007 with deliveries to begin in 2010. Just one problem. DND planners kept tweaking their requirements until 2009. As a result, total CH-147F numbers dropped while costs jumped (from $4.7B for 16 helicopters to $4.9B for 15 aircraft).[2]

Due to what has be described as DND's 'platinum plating' of the MHLH requirement, the entire project is now running years behind schedule. However, in relation to the helicopter reducing risks to Canadian troops in Kandahar, this is a moot point. The new Canadian CH-147Fs were not intended to enter service until 2010 anyway.  How late these 'über Chinooks' will now be relative to the end of the Canadian Forces' combat mission in Kandahar is of little importance.

Meanwhile, a year into the Kandahar deployment, the Canadian casualties from roadside IEDs were increasing. So were demands for access to ISAF's helicopter pool –  the casualties of our Allies had also been growing. With the PR value of that MHLH ACAN announcement fading, the Harper Conservative were forced  to look at interim alternatives for medium-lift helicopters.

The Chinook was still the best-suited medium-lift helicopter for hot- and-high conditions  in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, other potential used Chinook operators knew this too. But serendipity appeared on the horizon.  In 2005, the US Army began a program to rebuild older- model Chinooks into CH-47Fs. Then, in 2006, there was a change of plan. CH-47Fs would be 'new-builds', freeing up earmarked CH-47Ds for refurbishment under the ' Cargo Helicopter Airframe Procurement Support ' program. Canada was offered  CHAPS-rebuilt CH-47Ds in 2006. These were declined.

A Change of  Defence Minister and Canada's Joint Task Force Afghanistan Sprouts Wings

Peter MacKay became Stephen Harper's second MND in August 2007. His helicopter priority was convincing the US Army to allow Canada to jump the queue on CH-47Fs. Thwarted there, MacKay wanted to negotiate a lease of  in-theatre US Army Chinooks. But, by this stage, the US was embroiled in Iraq and short on medium-lift helicopters to meet  its own needs. Another two years would elapse before an interim solution appeared.  This was six, in-theatre CH-47Ds purchased from the US Army. The Chinooks were handed over to a new Canadian air wing at Kandahar ( JTF-Afg Air Wing aka TF Silver Dart ) and became fully operational in early 2009.

JTF-Afg Air Wing – staffed by both Army and Air Force personnel – would be comprised of the six used Chinooks (redesignated CH-147D by DND);  eight CH-146 Griffons (armed with Miniguns) to escort the transport helicopters; and  six  civilian-flown, Russian-built Mil Mi-8T helicopters leased to transport supplies only. Staff of the new air wing were justifiably proud of their accomplishment and the Chinooks were the undeniable stars of the show.  Taking on in-theatre Chinooks was extremely efficient and could take full advantage of the existing supply lines and parts stores. The downside to DND's in-theatre arrangement was that it didn't add a single medium-lift helicopter to that ISAF pool.

Have to Have 'Hips' if you Haven't got  Helicopters or Where did those Mi-17s Come From?

The Mi-8Ts did add to the available pool of medium-lift helicopters but lacked prestige. These leased transports were flown by foreign civilian aircrews on restricted missions. That was one reason for their low profile. The other was that DND was offered more advanced Mi-17-V5s by a Russian trade delegation to Ottawa back in May of 2006. The Russian offer was not so much declined as ignored. No DND personnel even showed up for the delegation's presentation. [3] With that history, it was puzzling when Mi-17-V5s with CF serials appeared in May/June 2010.

It turned out that 4 new Mi-17-V5s had been leased by DND and were being flown by Canadian Forces crews on combat missions in Afghanistan. Nothing was said about these DND-designated  CH-178s until the media began asking questions about the nature of  the lease. Missed in all of this was that Canada had, at long last, added numbers (as opposed to just aircrews) to that  NATO/ISAF medium-lift helicopter pool.

So why is DND being so coy about Canada's contribution of  CH-178s? [4]  Largely misplaced pride. Both Peter MacKay and the Air Force are prone to Cold War sabre-rattling for purposes of  reinforcing procurement preferences. However, this performance rarely meshes with reality. In the case of medium-lift helicopters for Afghanistan, reality has been a vexation to DND and the Air Force from the beginning. Having sworn not to 'fly Russian', DND has discovered that there are no timely alternatives. For its part, the Air Force's  Directorate of Aerospace Require- ments regards CF combat deployments as unwelcome distractions from procurement schemes.

Fast-Forwarding to a Future that Looks an awful lot like the Past – DND Procurement 2010

That brings us to the present.  After five years, Canada has added  four aircraft to the existing pool of  NATO/ISAF medium-lift helicopters. CF personal also took over operation of another six, in-theatre transport helicopters (of which five survive). Members of JTF-Afg Air Wing are justifiably proud of their achievement and of their helicopters. That both DND and the Harper government have failed to promote the CF's achievements to the Canadian population says a great deal more about bureaucratic priorities than military limitations.  No-one in the Canadian Forces wants to see a return to days of do-more-with-less on mingy budgets. Ironically, that's conditioned CF members to hold out for the best regards of the increased dangers to be faced while waiting. Unfortunately, that also dovetails perfectly with the proclivities of  bureaucrats.

The DND priority is big-budget procurement projects. If such projects drag on for decades (as was the case with the Maritime Helicopter Project), then a satisfying chunk of the bureaucrat's résumé is filled in (assuming that this productless project management office isn't shut down). Big money also represents prestige to defence ministers and  their governments. Announcing the multi-billion dollar purchase of some shiny new piece of major military hardware scores PR points which translates into newspaper column inches and coverage on the national TV news.

The implication is that neither bureaucrats nor defence ministers have the tactical advantages of effective military procurement as top priorities. Instead, their key concerns are prestige and career. This is not to say that they're indifferent to Canadian Forces losses at a personal level. Rather, they are playing a long-game of building departmental power (measured in budget and staff levels) or advancing in the Cabinet.  But that is politics  and  there is little hope of  a cure.

The real question is: What can be done to remedy the procurement quagmire? If the Canadian Forces are to be deployed into combat again in future, how can citizens ensure that the troops will be issued with the equipment needed to be effective and limit casualties? Our increasingly globalized defence industry might suggest that the answer is an open chequebook. Not likely.


[1] CH-147F is an anticipated 'Canadianized' designation. CF aircraft are given 'Century series' designations. Thus the US CH-47F Chinook will become a CH-147F once it enters CF service.

[2] The Office of the Auditor General notes that into that revised, $4.9B estimate for CH-147F Chinooks should be factored the Conservative government's  Dec 2006 decision to eliminate the cost of aircrew training for the 'Fs  –  which had been included in the original $4.7B costs.

[3] This May 2006 delegation offered Canada IL-76 airlifters as well as the Mi-17-V5s. Media reports suggested that a similar pitch had been directed at PM Stephen Harper earlier in 2006.

[4] DND designations have become erratic. CH-178 is from a string of 'missing' numbers which just happens to be close to the makers designations (as with CC-177 for the Boeing C-17). But the Russian system can be even more confusing. Mi-17 denotes an export version of the Mi-8, Russian military Mi-17-V5 being Mi-8MTV-5. Mi-17-V5 may be seen as Mi-17-5V or Mi-17(V5).

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