CF Expeditionary Force – Southeast Afghanistan
– Published Oct 2005
Hillier's Hopes for the Holidays – Honkin' Huge Helicopters!
Dianne DeMille & Stephen Priestley –
published in View from the West*
[Ed: This article was first published in October 2005. It was written with a tone of extreme urgency
at that time. Both authors knew that, if the available options were not pursued,
the result would be 'zero helicopters' for both our infantry and our engineers in Afghanistan. The
choice was between 'something' or 'nothing'.
The Liberal Government and Air Command chose nothing.
Now, we have a minority Conservative government. Canada has been presented with a chance for a low-cost,
interim solution to ameliorate the current dangerous and humiliating situation into which we have put our soldiers.
Here is a chance for Stephen Harper to prove that he is both practical
and fiscally conservative.
He can give the order to lease the readily-available
Russian helicopters for tactical support and transport in Afghanistan. If he does, our soldiers will at last
have the backup they deserve, when they need it most. Over to you, Mr. Prime
In February of 2006, Canadian Forces will be sending an expeditionary force to the border between south -
east Afghanistan and western Pakistan, to take part in combat along with other coalition forces,
under the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom. The
question is: Are the Canadian Forces (CF) fully equipped for this mission?
Probably not. In a CP article published on 14 September 2005,
Minister of National Defence, Bill Graham, admitted that, in this crucial deployment,
the CF won't have all the support equipment it needs.
"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 CP article, the last time the CF participated in OEF, our troops
"relied exclusively on US Chinook
helicopters to get them in and out of battle zones, as well as to
resupply them. The arrangement proved unsatisfactory, with the [CF] inevitably shuffled to
the bottom of the Americans' overloaded priority lists. On one mission, [CF personnel] began
running out of food and water ..."
Ask Yourself the Question: Why does Canada have no Chinook Helicopters?
The answer is simple. Because the Mulroney government sold ours to the Netherlands.
So, the Dutch will be there on the Pak-Afghan border, fighting alongside us,
killing Taleban resurgents, using our ex - Chinooks. And our CF personnel
may have to beg them for a ride. Here's a 'lesson learned' for
decision - makers (politicians and air staff planners):
Sometimes usable, necessary assets are more valuable than
the money you get from selling them.
Shortly after becoming Chief of Defence Staff (CDS),
General Rick Hillier made
the acquisition of medium - lift helicopters a priority.
The aircraft he had in mind was the 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.
Operational features give the Chinook advantages – especially in Afghanistan.
Ungainly as the Chinook might appear, its unusual features give
it a distinctive advantage in south-east Afghanistan.
In the mountains along the Pak - Afghan border, the air is thin, and
summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius.
In such 'hot - and - high' conditions, turbine engines lose power and rotor blades claw for
lift. Most helicopters begin to lose the stabilizing effect of their tail rotors.
But, of course, the counter-rotating Chinook has no tail rotor.
This 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 (unlike a conventional helicopter's
vertical stabilizing rotor). The twin rotors also give the Chinook great stability.
Skilled pilots 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 on rooftops, left).
Complete Breakdown in Strategic Planning within the top Echelon of Air Staff?
Minister Bill Graham announced that it was "unlikely, given the nature of military
procurement, [that] we would be able to acquire anything"
new 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 admission
that the 'official' planning and procurement system has completely broken down.
Money is not the biggest problem here – it's timing. With a little over four months to go before Canadian
troops return to combat, Chinooks are suddenly a priority.
Air Staff have just announced a plan to dispense with competitive bidding and
speed up the buying 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 Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the
February 2006 deployment?
1) Temporarily use the 15 CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters.
Among the aircraft already in CF service, the CH-149 Cormorant is the closest in capabilities
to the Chinook. Cormorants are really utility transport helicopters adapted for SAR.
As troop carriers, the CH-149s could carry 30 fully-equipped soldiers plus crew.
And, being powerful, three-engined helicopters,
Cormorants can easily cope with 'hot-and-high' conditions and lifting heavy sling loads.
The upside: Canadian Forces crews are already fully trained on the Cormorant,
so redeployment involves
little more than a coat of paint and a tranfer of troops. 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 downside: The Cormorants are having reliability problems and are rapidly
chewing through spare
parts. There may be no ready fix to the reliability problems.
DND could simply buy as many tail rotor bits, and
any other spare parts we need, and just get the job done. Finally, replacement
SAR helicopters would be needed.
Finding replacements for the SAR 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 to 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 techs) – is CHC based
in St. John's. As it happens, CHC also features in our next option.
[ Update: In Nov 2009, the British equivalent to the Cormorant, the RAF's
Merlin began operations in Helmand. The Italian Navy have since announced that, from Oct 2010, they too will
be operating EH101s to back their CH-47s in Afghanistan.]
2) Contract civilian medium - lift helicopters,
until new CF Chinooks arrive.
When the CF were involved with the UN Stabilization Force in Bosnia, medium-lift was provided by Russian-made Mil
helicopters under a lease organized by CHC of Newfoundland. When the mission 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 for others in Afghanistan. A 'wet lease' is the
typical arrangement – ie: leasing the helicopter complete with flightcrew and fuel. DND is fully familiar with
such deals. (This is how DND is able to lease those enormous Russian-made strategic transport aircraft.)
The upside: Immediate availability and CF familiarity with the Mil helicopter's capabilities. 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
The downside: The Mil is smaller than both the Cormorant and the Chinook. A realistic troop load for
the Mil 17 is only 24 combat-ready soldiers. The external sling load is only 3000kgs – 2/3rd 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 CF 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 to develop a modernized version of this helicopter, the Mi-17KF (at times called the Kittiwake),
which can feature a fully western cockpit and rear-loading ramp (important for quick egress).
These westernized Mi-17KF helicopters are produced in the Mil factory in Kazan, Russia. This is only a 3000km flight
to Kandahar. Compare that with the CF's two- day jet flights from CFB Trenton, doglegging through the Persian
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 Mil 17s are listed at just over US $5 Million
– a fifth the
replacement cost for the Cormorants, a tenth the likely cost of Chinooks.
[ Update: In Nov 2008, DND leased six Mi-8s from Skylink Aviation of
Toronto to take the pressure off of its similarly-sized fleet of used Chinooks in Afghanistan.]
3) The final option is to follow the Air Force's advice and "hold out for the
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 option means relying on our long-suffering allies
to transport CF troops
in their Chinooks. When, at last, a procure- ment opportunity finally comes,
global competition for new or
used Chinooks will be fierce, and prices will climb. Maybe DND will be able to buy rebuilt
or new - production Chinooks before the shooting
stops in south - eastern Afghanistan. Probably not.
So, the immediate options before General Rick Hillier
reveal a tough choice.
Hillier can (1) order a coat
of Army green paint for the
15 SAR Comorants,
(2) lease (or lease - to - own) Russian Mil 17s,
or (3) beg for rides on allies'
Chinooks, until the Air Force is completely happy with its latest shopping list.
The purpose of an analyst is to present the options. It will be up to General Hillier to make the
final recommendations to the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues.
Canada is a rich country. Why are we the only nation that is sending its infantry into this combat
zone with no transport helicopters to supply them? No helicopter to evacuate the wounded, or
those who become trapped in a lethal situation?
[ Update: In the end a hybrid arrangement was arrived at. The Harper
government announced an ACAN for 16 CH-47Fs in July 2006 but the
actual order (reduced to 15 CH-147Fs) wasn't placed until Aug 2009 (with delivery not until 2013-14). After belatedly
examining CHAPS, six used US Army Chinooks were
bought for CF use in Afghanistan. The 6 CH-147Ds began
operations in Feb 2009 escorted by armed CH-146 Griffon utility helicopters and backed up by six
leased Mi-8 transports as part of JTF-Afg Air Wing. One CH-147D was reported lost in action in Aug
Dianne DeMille is the editor of the Canadian American Strategic Review.
Stephen Priestley is the creator of DND 101 - A Visual Guide to CF Equipment.
*First published in
View from the West, a column in the Winnipeg Free Press.
The WFP is the last major independent newspaper left
in Western Canada.