CBC News has learned the government is considering a major rethink of how the military uses its helicopters at sea. The change, if implemented, would spell the end for a five-year-old, $5-billion contract with Sikorsky to replace Canada's aging fleet of Sea Kings, instead opting for smaller, cheaper helicopters.

The possible shift comes as part of a data-gathering engagement initiated earlier this month in which three rival helicopter manufacturers were asked to provide information about possible alternatives to the CH-148 Cyclone, including two much smaller choppers that could save the government billions of dollars.

The government wants the information by next Tuesday — an indication it may be preparing to end the nearly 25-year-long saga to replace the navy's Sea Kings and a procurement process that the then-Minister of Defence Peter MacKay called "the worst in the history of Canada."

The attempt to chart a new course for the long-delayed helicopter replacement program took place in Ottawa last Thursday at a meeting between government officials and executives of helicopter-makers AugustaWestland, Eurocopter subsidiary NH Industries and Cyclone manufacturer Sikorsky.

The fast-tracked process is an indication the government may be close to giving up on the $5-billion contract with Sikorsky for 28 Cyclone helicopters meant to replace the military workhorse Sea Kings which have been relied on for 50 years.

Sea King helicopter

An information-gathering process involving three helicopter manufacturers could signal a major shift in the way the military uses the aircraft at sea. The reports, due next Tuesday, could also spell the end of a deal to replace Canada's ageing fleet of Sea Kings with 28 overdue Sikorsky Cyclones. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

CBC News has learned there are four other helicopters being considered, including the MH-60 Sea Hawk – a naval version of Sikorsky’s Blackhawk used by various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces – as well as AgustaWestland’s 159 and 101 and NH Industries' medium-sized NH-90.

Both the Sea Hawk and the AW159 are significantly smaller than the AW101, Cyclone and Sea King.

However, while a smaller helicopter could cost less and would likely be delivered much faster than the stalled Cyclone, it would require the military to completely rethink the way it uses helicopters at sea.

A smaller helicopter could work for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, cargo carrying and transporting naval boarding parties, reports the CBC’s James Cudmore, who has been covering the helicopter procurement process. But he says it couldn’t do all those things at the same time like the much larger Sea King or Cyclone.

Cyclone helicopters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new $155 million facility at Canadian Forces Base 443 Squadron in Sidney, B.C. in 2011. The new facility was intended to be home to some of the 28 Cyclone helicopters on order from Sikorsky. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

It's a question of “do we want giant helicopters that can do everything, or smaller less costly ones we can have sooner,” Cudmore told Evan Solomon on Power and Politics on Tuesday.

It's long been alleged the Liberal government in 2004 chose Sikorsky to avoid the embarrassment of buying the AgustaWestland 101, which the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney ordered, and was famously scrapped by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in 1993.

The maritime helicopter replacement program, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government took over in 2006, has been plagued by delays.

The Conservatives have blamed the previous Liberal government for snags in the procurement process and the cancellation of an earlier helicopter program, which cost more than $500 million.

An auditor general’s report in 2010 concluded the procurement process was flawed from the outset, saying the government believed it was getting an “off-the-shelf” product from Sikorsky, but that a misunderstanding over “state-of-the-art” technology promised by the Cyclone-maker “set the stage for significant misalignment,” the report said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of helicopter manufacturer AugustaWestland.
    Oct 16, 2013 12:48 PM ET
With files from the CBC's James Cudmore and The Canadian Press