Cyclone lessons.

Not yet, but soon, hopefully.

Tempest.  Storm.  Whirlwind.  CYCLONE.  It would seem that Canada's newest helicopter was aptly named, not for the downwash of its propeller, but for the type of controversy it would cause.

By now, many of you have heard that the CH-148 Cyclone is pretty much a "done deal".  Despite a brief period of threatening to take their business elsewhere, the Canadian government announced that they would be going ahead with the troubled Cyclone purchase.  This was done as a late Friday afternoon "info dump", a practice that indicates that they want the announcement to attract the least amount of attention.  Despite this, criticism has been ramping up, questioning the choices made and the money spent in what former Defence Minister Peter MacKay called "the worst procurement in the history of Canada".

Those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it, so let's look at some of the lessons (hopefully) learned from the long and painful process of replacing Canada's CH-124 Sea King helicopters.


By far the greatest delay in the Cyclone program has been caused by development delays.  The Cyclone itself is a "militarized" version of Sikorsky's S-92 Cougar.  Sikorsky pitched the S-92's civilian roots as a way to sell the Cyclone as being a "proven" platform.  

Sikorsky S-92 Cougar, basis for the CH-148 Cyclone.

It takes more prepare a product for military service than few coats of medium grey paint and some decals, however.  Military hardware needs to meet much more demanding requirements and needs to operated in some inhospitable environments.  Specialized equipment needs to be added such as weapons, surveillance gear, and communication equipment.  In the Cyclone's case a special copper wire mesh needs to be applied throughout to help protect the helicopter's sensitive electronic systems from high levels of electromagnetic radiation produced by military grade radars.

Adding all this extra gear means more weight.  For the Cyclone, that extra weight made it sluggish enough that it needed upgraded engines.  With all these modifications, the Cyclone is, for all intents and purposes, almost an entirely different aircraft from the S-92 Cougar.  While ordering an almost entirely new design allows the DND to outfit their new helicopter to exactly their specifications, the end result is far more expensive and takes a lot longer than buying something "off the rack".  The irony here is that when the original EH101 was cancelled by PM Jean Chretien for being a "Cadillac", but what greater luxury is there above having a custom tailored suit?

Commonality...  Shommonality...

CH-149 Cormorant stopping for a large double-double.

Canada currently operates a fleet of 14 CH-149 Cormorant SAR (search and rescue) helicopters.  Those helicopters are currently operated out of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.  CH-148 is intended to reach a fleet of 28.  These 28 Cyclones will replace Sea Kings currently stationed in British Columbia and Newfoundland, not too far away from where Cormorants are operating.  It should be noted that the CH-149 Cormorant is a decontented version of the EH-101 originally intended to replace the Sea King.  It should also be noted that, during its brief look into Cyclone alternatives, the modern variant of the EH-101, the AW-101, was considered.  It should also be noted that one of the duties the Cyclone will be tasked with is Search and Rescue.

The UK's Royal Navy just went ahead and replaced their Sea Kings with the EH101 Merlin.
So...  While a mixed fighter fleet would be considered cost prohibitive, a mixed helicopter fleet is okay, even though those helicopters are of similar design, function, and even based close together.


Canada also took a rather roundabout route in procuring its fleet of CH-47F Chinooks.  After selling it's previous fleet to the Netherlands, DND realized they were desperately needed for Afghanistan.  Those new Chinooks arrived after Canadian operations ended there however, as they were waiting for  extra, Canada specific features to be added, like larger fuel tanks and an upgraded electrical system.

One of the missions tasked to the new CH-47F?  Disaster relief, a mission also shared with the CH-124 Sea King and CH-149 Cormorant.


Politics and procurement don't mix.

There's plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the bungled Sea King replacement.  Ordered by a Progressive Conservative government, the EH101 was actually a pretty obvious choice.  Purposely designed as a direct replacement for the Sea King, the EH101 was the only helicopter left standing after the Sikorsky S-70 Sea Hawk was deemed too small and the Aérospatiale Super Puma was aged past its prime.

The EH101 order came during a time of deficits and high unemployment, however, so its selection was dubbed wasteful by then opposition Liberal leader,  Jean Chretien.  Famously, Chretien described the EH101 as a "Cadillac".  This, despite the EH101's distinct lack of leather seats, wood trim, and available landau top.  Despite a promise to reduce the order, the Liberal Party of Canada soundly trounced the PCs in the next election.  It should be noted, however, that the EH101 was far from the biggest scandal of that particular election cycle, or that government.

Upon winning the 1993 election, Jean Chretien and his party quickly cancelled the EH101 purchase.  This ended up costing the Canadian taxpayers $478.3 million in cancellation fees, followed up by another $71.5 million spent on extending the life of the Sea Kings.  To put this in perspective, that $550 million would have paid for 1/8th of the EH101 order.

And then...  Nothing.  The Sea King was left to soldier on until it approached its 50-year anniversary with the Canadian Armed Forces.  No interim helicopter.  No competition to find a cheaper, more basic model.  No reevaluation.  Despite the best efforts of the crews working on it, the Sea King became increasingly more labour intensive to put in the air, requiring 30 hours of maintenance for each hour up in the air.

"If the Sea King stays in the air for longer than 8 hours...  Call your doctor."

It wasn't until after Jean Chretien took his "long walk in the snow" that new Liberal leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin made the Sea King replacement a priority.  While the EH101 (now AW101) was still under consideration, the requirements seemed to have been written intentionally to disqualify it.

In 2004, the Sikorsky H-92 SuperHawk was selected to be the basis for the next Maritime Helicopter.  This, despite the fact that the H-92 had yet to be selected by any other military force.

Now, almost 10 years later, the Canadian Armed Forces are still waiting.

It is inevitable that large scale military purchases become politicized.  After all, a governing party spending billions of taxpayers' money is always a big deal.  Taxpayers demand value for their tax dollar, after all.  The possibility that that 30% or more of their paycheck is being deducted to help pay for something frivolous, extravagant, or just plain stupid.

Big ticket military purchases almost never come as a surprise, however.  Vehicles and equipment have finite lifetimes.  Some of it becomes obsolete as technology advances.  Some of it becomes ineffective thanks to new tactics.  Some of it just wears out after decades of hard use.  While ground crew technicians can often work miracles getting old aircraft to fly again, sooner or later there comes a time when parts are no longer available and the cost of repairs is greater than the costs associated with procuring new equipment.  No matter how new and shiny those new helicopters, tanks, jets, or rifles might be, sooner or later, they're going to wear out and need to be replaced.  While billions of dollars being spent might seem like political fodder for an opposition party, there's a good chance their criticism could backfire when and if they take office and assume responsibility for the same procurement program they criticized.

Sir Sam Hughes,  Minister of Militia and Defense during WWI, equipped solders with a prone-to-jam Ross Rifle, the MacAdam Shield Shovel, (pictured) and the infamous "Sir Sam Shoes", which were combat boots constructed out of cardboard (yes, you read that right).

Simple solutions?

What can be done to avoid a future Cyclone debacle?
  1. When possible, avoid purchasing an unproven design.  While it's tempting to be at the forefront of technology, doing so costs money and developmental delays are the norm.  Canada doesn't have the military budget, nor the will, to be at the bleeding edge of military technology.  
  2. Avoid the need to "Canadianize" a design.  Military contractors can't be expected to deliver a product on time and on budget if we're constantly changing the requirements.  Yes, Canada does have some rather challenging operating environments, but few of these environments (cold weather, large land mass, etc) are truly unique enough to warrant custom built aircraft.
  3. Splitting a fleet of similar mission aircraft into two separate platforms is okay if its politically justified, so surely splitting a fleet for more pressing reasons (cost, flexibility, risk mitigation) should be completely acceptable, if not openly encouraged.
  4. Have a contingency plan.  Procurements rarely go as planned, so why not give ourselves recourse if things don't go as planned?  Have a "first runner up" selected in case the selected winner is unable to meet expectations of pricing, deliveries, or specifications.  Preferably, this "runner up" would be a proven design already in production and in service.  
  5. Try to leave politics out of it.  While a little political intervention is to be expected, the Canadian Armed Forces shouldn't be equipped on the whims of those more concerned on poll numbers.  At most, the Canadian government should act as a simple oversight to ensure that military procurement follows a defined set of rules set up to ensure Canadians get the best value for their dollar and that our soldier's get the equipment they need.
  6. Plan early.  The day after a new aircraft is delivered, consideration on its replacement should start.  This include reevaluating that aircraft's role, to ensure that requirements are based on what that aircraft will actually do, not just simply copy-and-pasted from the previous models' spec sheet.  Some platforms may see their role expanded, others might see their role diminish or even slip away.
  7. Watch (but don't necessarily copy) what everyone else is doing.  If no one else is selecting a platform, that could be clear sign to stay away.  Conversely, successful platforms are usually successful for a reason, costs often being one of them.
If the Cyclone debacle truly is "the worst procurement in the history of Canada", (some would argue not) than perhaps its failure could have the positive effect of changing how Canadian military purchases are handled in the future.

Did Canada learn from the Cyclone purchase?  Will it effect the decision to replace the CF-18?



  1. 1. I agree, however other than the cyclone when is the last time a developmental program was truly started
    2. I agree MOTS purchases should be pursued. If it is good enough for our allies it should work for us. I believe the CH-47F were all post contract extras added without proper oversight. This should be illegal
    3.minimizing platforms should be a goal, particularly with our small forces and their demonstrated management deficiencies.
    4. I'm not sure how a contingency plan would work or if it would be needed if the first 2 points were followed
    5. I'm not sure I agree. At present there is no accountability within DND or the CF's. Who made the decisions? Has anybody been fired? If the minister just purchased platforms through sole source deals at least the public would know who was accountable.
    6. Unfortunately DND/CF seems to plan forever. Has anyone costed the individual programs to see how many personnel and how much money has been wasted on the Cyclone/FWSAR/JSS/CCV over the years
    In addition to point three the CF's are going to have 4 helicopters in service for total numbers of 156 (100 CH-146,13 CH-149, 15 CH-147,28 CH-148) actually less with no plan for attrition. Ideally Comorant and Cyclone would be merged into one platform as originally intended, this could still happen in either direction. The reality is 85% of CF's helicopter roles could be done by 75 CH-146 and 75 CH-149. The Chinooks are here to stay now and that is not a bad thing just another small, orphan platform to maintain.

  2. Doug, an argument for what I'm not sure
    $10 million a year to keep SMP project open? Extrapolate that for all the projects open, for projects of greater complexity, and for average procurement time period of 15 years. Ouch


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