Canada's air force must speed up crew training and the delivery of CH-148 Cyclone helicopters in the next two years to avoid a shortage as the 50-year-old CH-124 Sea Kings are finally retired, says a senior defence official.
Some people have been concerned the Sea Kings may be phased out faster than the Cyclones get equipped to fully replace them. The former Conservative government announced last June that the old helicopters would be retired by 2018.
The Sea Kings fly off the decks of warships and some fear Canadian naval vessels might have to go to sea without helicopters.
The possibility that the Sea Kings would be pulled out of service faster than they can be replaced is something defence planners are scrambling to mitigate, said the senior official with knowledge of the program.
"We're looking at ways to accelerate the training process to make sure we have enough aircrew available to man the aircraft. And we believe we will," said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media. "We're also looking at having an accelerated delivery of some aircraft in the 2016-17 time frame to give us more aircraft on the ramp in [Canadian Forces Base] Shearwater."
Cyclones ordered in 2004, but still not ready
Only four of the 1960s vintage airframes have been retired thus far and the official could not commit to a specific timetable on when the rest would go. The official did say the decommissioning program was not on hold.
The 28 Cyclones have faced repeated development delays since being ordered in 2004 and are not expected to be fully operational until 2021.
There are six aircraft at Shearwater, with another two on the way before the end of the year.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws show that in addition to ensuring an overlap between the fleets, the road to retiring the Sea Kings will be bumpy.
Many of the setbacks relate to the development of the sophisticated software for the Cyclones that runs everything from flight controls to weapons systems. The documents show defence officials believe not all of the bugs will be worked out by the time the aircraft is declared fully operational.
The software is being introduced in two blocks. The first phase allows the helicopter to fly in a limited capacity including search and rescue, and the second tranche will bring the aircraft up to the full warfighting, submarine-hunting version.
Switch to developmental program
"While Block 2 represents a fully functional, operationally relevant maritime helicopter, there is insufficient time within a realistic schedule to inject all remaining maritime helicopter requirement specification elements," said a Nov. 28, 2013 planning document. "Accordingly, it is anticipated that certain capabilities will need to be added during the in-service support (regular maintenance phase), which nominally begins post-Block 2 delivery."
The significance was downplayed by the official who insisted that by the end of the second phase the air force will have the helicopter it ordered in 2004.
One of the significant changes the Harper government allowed was to deem the Cyclone a developmental program, much like the oft-maligned F-35 stealth fighter. That means instead of expecting a completed helicopter, the government was willing to accept the risk and delays associated with the trial and error of development.
The official said National Defence believes it has been able to mitigate the risk and the program is on track.
But Dave Perry, a defence analyst with the Global Affairs Institute, says the problem of training highlights that project delays are not just an accounting nuisance and they have real consequences.
"On this project, that schedule has been continually slipping further into the future since 2008, which must be presenting a complete nightmare for the RCAF that needs to figure out when it can actually stop training people to operate the Sea Kings and start learning how to use the Cyclone," he said.