Senior National Defence and Public Works officials have informally asked rival aircraft makers if they can step in to pick up the pieces if the troubled CH-148 Cyclone helicopter program is cancelled, The Canadian Press has learned.

The attempt to chart a new course for the long-delayed Sea King replacement program took place in Ottawa on Thursday at an unusual meeting that involved not only government officials and executives of AgustaWestland and NH Industries, but also Cyclone manufacturer Sikorsky.

Details of the meeting were provided to The Canadian Press by multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Backup plan ordered

The companies were told the military needs a maritime helicopter capability, and the government has instructed officials to develop a backup plan, the sources said.

Each company, including Sikorsky, was handed an abbreviated set of requirements, asked whether their aircraft could meet the criteria and told to respond within three weeks.

Government officials are calling it a data gathering engagement, a mini-version of the process they undertook in the politically explosive F-35 stealth fighter program, which was put on hold last year pending a detailed market analysis that's still ongoing.

Both procurements have been huge political headaches for the Harper government, including scathing reports by the auditor general that dented the money-management credibility of the Conservatives.

The Harper government has made it clear it's looking at options "other" than the Cyclone, even sending an air force team to Britain last summer to check out the Royal Navy HM-1 Merlin helicopters built by AgustaWestland.

NH Industries, which was representing Eurocopter at the meeting, was asked about its NH-90 chopper.

Sikorsky was also asked for information about its other maritime helicopter, the MH-60 Sea Hawk, which is in service with the U.S. Navy.

No one from the Department of Public Works was immediately available for comment Friday. No decision has yet been made to scrap the Cyclone program, the sources insisted.

'Lack of oversight,' critic says

But critics, including defence expert Michael Byers, are wondering what the government is waiting for — and why it is has taken so long to shut down a program that's clearly not working.

"This reflects a systematic lack of oversight on the part of our elected representatives because this is a procurement that has been in trouble for a very long time," said Byers, a University of British Columbia professor who has studied the Cyclone woes.

"The job of the defence minister and the job of the public works minister is to oversee these things, and when there are problems, to call the bureaucrats and generals to account. And I've seen no evidence of this happening up to now."

A spokesman for Sikorsky said the company is focused on meeting its obligations and remains confident the program is still alive.

"We have a large team of highly skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people dedicated to completion of the program," said Paul Jackson in an email late Friday. "We are absolutely committed to delivering the Cyclone with all of its highly advanced capabilities to the Canadian Forces."

Sikorsky has been under contract since 2004 to deliver 28 helicopters to replace Canada's 50-year-old Sea King fleet.

Thus far, however, only four "test" Cyclones have arrived at the military air base in Shearwater, N.S.

The government and the company have been engaged in a public tug-of-war over when a final version of the helicopter would be ready for service, despite two contract extensions and more money for engine improvements.

Air force engineers who are evaluating the test Cyclones recently expressed concern when issuing a temporary flight certificate about the aircraft's ability to withstand high electromagnetic radiation fields, like those produced by military-grade radar.

The abbreviated set of requirements given to the aircraft makers on Thursday does not ask whether they can meet that requirement, nor if their helicopter has the ability to run on one engine in case of emergency, said the sources.

The government is, however, insisting on so-called "run dry" ability, which allows the engine to continue to operate in the event of a loss of fluid. The Cyclone's civilian counterpart — the S-92 — was involved in a fatal crash off Newfoundland where the gear box suffered a massive loss of oil.

20-year political decision

If the Conservatives were to cancel the Cyclone in favour of the Merlin, it would bring a 20-year-old political decision full circle.

In the early 1990s, Brian Mulroney's government ordered 50 EH-101s to replace the air force's Sea Kings, but the deal was cancelled by Jean Chrétien's Liberals shortly after they were elected in 1993.

The Merlin is a variant of the EH-101.

It was Paul Martin's Liberal government that signed the Cyclone deal with Sikorsky for $3.2 billion — a figure that has since ballooned to $5.7 billion. The aircraft were supposed to be in service by 2008.

So far, Sikorsky has accrued $88.6 million in liquidated damages for its failure to meet the contract.

Last spring, former public works minister Rona Ambrose asked for an independent analysis of whether Sikorsky could deliver what it promised. That analysis, completed at the end of August, recommended the government decide within 90 days whether to dump the Cyclones.