The decades-long project to replace Canada's 50-year-old Sea King helicopters has hit another snag, with the government now hiring an independent expert to study whether helicopter-maker Sikorsky is even capable of delivering a replacement as promised.

CBC News has learned that Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has gone outside government and hired a consultant to study Sikorsky's work, and Canada's contract, to determine whether it's even possible for the U.S. helicopter giant to deliver the aircraft Canada ordered.

The details of the hire — or the review — are not publicly available and Ambrose's office has yet to provide more information, but Ambrose herself offered the news after questions from the CBC about Sikorsky and its contract.

"I have employed the services of an independent consultant and contractor to undertake a review of the ability of this company to deliver this to the government," Ambrose said.

The Defence Department's maritime helicopter project is the successor to the failed procurement of 50 EH-101 helicopters promised in 1992 by former prime minister Brian Mulroney. That program was cancelled in 1993 as part of an election promise made by Jean Chrétien.

For years, the program lay dormant as Canada's Sea King helicopters slowly gathered wear and tear.

In 2004, Sikorsky won a formal contract to provide 28 new CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to Canada.  

The initial contract was worth $1.8 billion for aircraft, and an additional $3.2 billion for 20 years of maintenance and support.

Missed deadlines

Delivery was to begin in November 2008, but it never did. The deadline slipped, and then slipped again.

In 2010, Canada agreed to accept six interim helicopters with lesser capabilities than those ordered by DND, provided Sikorsky agree to deliver "fully compliant" helicopters beginning in June 2012.

So far, only four helicopters have been delivered — all of them interim, and none of them meeting even those lower "interim" standards, said Ambrose.

"I am very disappointed in Sikorsky," she told CBC News. "They have not met their contractual obligations to date. They have missed every deadline and every timeline in the delivery of even the interim maritime helicopter, never mind the fully compliant maritime helicopter."

With the Sea Kings now about to enter their 50th year of service, and maintenance costs soaring, the military is desperate for some form of new maritime helicopter.

The Royal Canadian Air Force realizes the procurement process is slow, and unless the military is able to begin training on some variant of the Cyclone it won't be ready to fly the new helicopters when they finally start arriving.

Now, CBC News has learned Public Works is refusing to allow the military to accept delivery of those four interim helicopters, because they allegedly aren't up to standards.

"The bottom line is that they have not met their contractual obligation," Ambrose told the CBC. "The interim helicopter does not meet the requirements of the air force, so we are not going to take delivery of a helicopter that is not compliant."

Sikorsky seems to be sensitive to Ambrose's criticisms, though it's not clear what it intends to do about it.

"We appreciate the minister's concerns and, consistent with our past practice, will not comment on any discussions we are having with the Canadian government," Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said by email. "The program itself is among the most sophisticated ever conducted by Sikorsky, and it continues to move forward."

Regardless, the 4½-year delay continues to have an effect on military plans.

The air force is already working on how to keep flying its Sea Kings for years more. And that has consequences for the Royal Canadian Navy, too, affecting the long-planned upgrade of its Halifax-class frigates.

The upgrade is necessary to extend the life of the vessels, and naval planners had intended to use that lengthy work period to upgrade the ships' helicopter facilities.

The Cyclone is larger and heavier than the Sea King, and the landing decks and hangars need to be upgraded.

But with no deadline in sight for delivery of the final version of the Cyclones, the navy is planning to keep some of its frigates fitted for Sea Kings. That will necessitate a further refit for the ships, once the Cyclones actually arrive.