Canada’s long-promised fleet of new Sikorsky naval helicopters, already four years late and $300 million over budget, likely won’t be delivered and ready for combat for up to another five years, informed industry sources tell CBC News.
Last month, Connecticut-based Sikorsky missed its latest contract deadline to finish delivering 28 sleek, state-of-the-art Cyclone maritime helicopters to replace Canada’s aged fleet of increasingly unreliable Sea Kings, now nearing 50 years old.
In fact, delivery of the new choppers hasn’t even started.
Chris Alexander, parliamentary secretary for defence, said Tuesday on CBC's Power and Politics that the helicopters would start to arrive "soon."
"We very much hope that it's months. But there's a discussion underway here with a contractor, and there are air-worthiness issues, certification issues, that will have to be gone through before the aircraft can come into service."
But industry insiders familiar with the Sikorsky project say the Cyclone helicopters being built for Canada are a new design with a lot of sophisticated electronics and military mission systems that aren’t yet even installed, all of which will take years to integrate and become combat-ready.
Repeated calls to Sikorsky were not returned.
The helicopters, crammed with modern systems, are considered vital to naval operations, flying off the decks of Canada’s naval frigates to scan the seas for enemy threats.
The Department of National Defence says in a briefing note that critical work needs to be done before Canada will accept delivery of the first Cyclone helicopter, and officials apparently don’t think that will be anytime soon.
Two frigates the Canadian navy had retrofitted at an undisclosed expense so the Sikorskys could land on their decks are now being reconfigured right back to the way they were, to handle the old Sea Kings.
'They haven't given us a date'
Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, whose department is responsible for enforcing deadlines in the contract with Sikorsky, tells CBC she wouldn’t even guess when the company might deliver the entire fleet.
"They haven’t given us a date," Ambrose says, suggesting that even if the company did commit to a new deadline, it might not amount to much.
"As we know, their dates — the promises they have made to us — have shifted numerous times."
The original 2004 contract with Sikorsky stipulated the company had to deliver the helicopters by 2008.
When that deadline passed with no helicopters in sight, the Harper government could have hit Sikorsky with $36 million in contract penalties.
Instead, it was Canadian taxpayers who reached into their pockets.
The government agreed to let Sikorsky extend the deadline another four years to June this year — and increase the original contract price by about $300 million.
So far, Sikorsky has paid zero in penalties.
'We do expect that when we sign a contract with a company, that they fulfil their obligations.' —Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose
As of last month, Sikorsky had only provided a couple of prototypes that have no military mission systems, and aren’t certified to fly over water or at night.
The two helicopters apparently spend most of their time on the tarmac at Shearwater Heliport at CFB Halifax as "training aids" for ground mechanics.
The machines are so incomplete the Canadian government refuses to accept them as an official delivery of anything in the contract.
Public Works Minister Ambrose says Sikorsky missing the latest deadline officially puts the company on the hook for $94 million in contract penalties.
But she sounds anything but certain Canadian taxpayers will see much compensation.
"We do expect that when we sign a contract with a company, that they fulfill their obligations. And so we are in discussions with them right now; we’ve had ongoing, high-level discussions with them for the last number of months.
"They do have some challenges, and we understand that."
None of which is likely to surprise anyone familiar with the naval helicopter saga, surely one of the longest-running gong shows in Canadian procurement history.
Decades-long procurement process
Thirty-five years ago, the Trudeau government first set out to buy replacements for the 1960s-era Sea Kings, even then considered close to their best-before dates.
In 1992, Brian Mulroney’s government ordered 50 Cormorant helicopters for both naval surveillance and maritime search-and-rescue, at a total cost of $4.8 billion.
The following year, Jean Chretien fulfilled an election promise to kill the deal to buy Cormorants he called unnecessary "Cadillacs," a move that cost taxpayers $478 million in cancellation penalties.
Five years later, after a long and carefully controlled bidding process for 15 new search-and-rescue helicopters, an embarrassed Chretien government (and an enraged prime minister) wound up having to buy the same Cormorants.
In 2004, Paul Martin’s government chose Sikorsky to supply the remaining 28 naval helicopters after the Cormorant was mysteriously disqualified from the bidding.
Twenty years after Chretien pulled the plug on the original $4.8 billion Cormorant purchase, supposedly to save public money, the auditor general has estimated taxpayers will now pay about $6.2 billion for roughly half as many Sikorskys.
This story has been edited from an earlier version to include an additional quote from Conservative MP Chris Alexander.Jul 04, 2012 11:24 AM ET