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U.S. soldiers disembark from a CH-47 Chinook military helicopter in southern Afghanistan in February. The Canadian government has announced plans to purchase six Chinooks from the U.S. military. ((Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press))

After years of "hitchhiking" rides with allies and relying heavily on dangerous land convoys, Canadian soldiers will soon have new helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles at their disposal.

On Thursday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed plans to purchase and lease new equipment. Some of the new helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be made available immediately to the soldiers serving in Afghanistan, while other equipment will arrive in the next few years.

"Our government is determined to give the Canadian Forces the tools that they need to do the important work that we ask of them," MacKay said, speaking to reporters at an airport in Saint-Hubert, Que.

"Our Canadian Forces have been in the unfortunate position of not having any other option than hitchhiking rides with allies to move personnel in countries like Afghanistan."

The equipment will meet one of the conditions required for extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan by two years, to 2011. Parliament voted in March to extend the mission, but said the extension can only happen if the military receive new large helicopters and new UAVs.

MacKay said the helicopters will allow the Canadian military to transport troops and deliver supplies more frequently by air. Land convoys have proven dangerous in Afghanistan — 88 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002, many of them killed by roadside bombs.  

MacKay said the UAVs, also known as drones, will also help keep Canadian soldiers off the ground, since the equipment allows surveillance work to be done remotely.

Bolstering Arctic sovereignty

MacKay stressed that the new equipment won't just help in Afghanistan and other military overseas, but will assist the Canadian Forces' efforts to protect Canada's sovereignty in the High Arctic.

The equipment is part of the multibillion-dollar Canada First Defence Strategy that the Conservative government launched in June.

In terms of helicopters, MacKay said Canada plans to:

  • Lease six Russian-made commercial helicopters for up to $36 million. The helicopters, which can transport troops and supplies, will be in service later this summer.
  • Purchase six used U.S.-made Boeing D-model Chinook helicopters with medium-lift capabilities from the United States, to be in use by February 2009. The helicopters, and the training and support needs associated with them, will cost up to $292 million.
  • Purchase 16 new F-model Chinook helicopters Boeing for medium and heavy lifting, to be in service by 2013. The deal has been cited at $4.2 billion.

Regarding the unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones, Canada's military will:

  • Lease small UAVs (Scan Eagles) from Boeing for work in the Afghan region of Kandahar over the next nine months. The first small UAVs arrived in Afghanistan in June as part of the contract that is valued at up to $14 million.
  • Lease a tactical Heron UAV for two years, and possibly three, for use in Afghanistan starting in early 2009. The contract, worth $95 million, has been awarded to British Columbia's MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates.
  • Secure some sort of long-term UAV solution, with details still to be worked out.

No further details on the UAV deals were immediately provided.

With files from the Canadian Press