Smaller Sea King replacements would mean big changes to navy

The CBC has learned that a decision to abandon the Sikorsky Cyclone and to perhaps purchase a fleet of smaller, less expensive helicopters to replace Canada's fleet of aging Sea Kings would have a major impact on how the navy uses helicopters at sea.

Government could scrap deal with Sikorsky for overdue Cyclone helicopters, considers smaller choppers

A plan to replace Canada's fleet of 50-year-old Sea Kings with similar, modern Cyclone helicopters could be scrapped in favour of smaller, cheaper choppers. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

A decision to abandon the Sikorsky Cyclone and instead purchase a fleet of smaller, possibly less expensive helicopters to replace Canada's fleet of aging Sea Kings would have a major impact on how the navy uses the aircraft at sea.

Defence sources tell CBC News a shift to smaller helicopters would require a series of complex changes to almost all aspects of the training of crews and the operation of the ship-borne aircraft.

It would also necessitate the renovation of shipboard operations rooms and military weapon control computers in order to accommodate the battle systems normally lodged aboard larger choppers like Sea Kings or Cyclones.

CBC News reported Tuesday the government is considering this major shift as part of a plan to put an end to the years-long wait for 28 new Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters to replace the Sea Kings.

The government has asked manufacturers for information on four other choppers, including smaller helicopters, that could be bought for less cash and perhaps very quickly.

One of the Sea Kings key roles is searching for submarines and, at war, attacking them from the air using torpedoes. The Sea Kings are also used to patrol ahead of their base ships and search for enemy or other target vessels. The sensors and systems used to capture and process sonar and radar data, as well as other information, are located in the back of the Sea King, alongside an air force tactical control officer called a TACCO, who directs their use.

In the Canadian fleet, TACCOs are frequently authorized to make the decisions to attack a target on their own, with oversight from battle commanders back aboard their home ship.

Larger military maritime helicopters such as the Sikorsky Cyclone, AgustaWestland’s AW 101 and the NH 90 by NHIndustries – all of which the government is considering as Sea King replacements – would have a similar set up.

One of the four helicopter models being considered in place of the Cyclone is the Sikorsky Seahawk - a maritime version of the Blackhawk - similar to this SH-60 on the flight deck of USS Stockdale in July. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

But the smaller choppers being considered – the AW159 or the new naval variant of the famed UH-60 Blackhawk, called the Seahawk – use remote communication to perform those functions.

On the Seahawk and AW159, the TACCO operates via remote link from a berth in the ship’s operations room. That's also where the sophisticated battle computers are located.

In the Canadian context, moving to the smaller chopper model would force the navy to renovate and rewire its ships to accommodate the TACCO and his or her battle equipment in its operations rooms.

This is no small feat as those systems would need to be integrated into the ship's existing warfare systems.

Those modifications would need to be performed aboard every currently serving Canadian vessel, and would also likely require a reworking of planned designs for future ships, such as the military's joint supply ships and perhaps, the planned Arctic offshore patrol ships.

That could be a problem for the Arctic vessels, in particular, because they are based mostly on commercial designs and include only minimal accommodation for a military operations centre.  

All of this would cost money — perhaps lots of it.

It could also spark an internal fight inside the military about who manages the airborne naval battle, air force officers aboard helicopters, or naval officers aboard ships. Currently naval officers are not trained to fight the airborne battle, nor do they have experience using the systems and equipment used by those helicopters and their crews.

In order to accept bids for these new smaller helicopters, the government has had to make other changes to its statement of requirements for a Sea King replacement.

The smaller helicopters can really only be used for one maritime role at a time: They are either equipped for anti-submarine warfare, or for transport, or search and rescue, but never all those things at the same time, as larger helicopters can be.

That's a significantly unattractive option for a small navy like Canada's which is used to having a single multiple-role helicopter in its hands available for any job, at just about any time.

In fact, some manufacturers quietly maintain their smaller helicopters are really unsuitable for Canada's needs.

They suggest the whole process of looking at smaller helicopters feels like it's designed to prove they're simply not as suitable for the task as a larger helicopter might be.

Some industry sources say that could favour the now much-maligned Sikorsky Cyclone in any mini-competition resulting from the government's request for information, which would likely suit the military just fine.

Industry sources say they believe the government may yet decide to go with Sikorsky. After all, the government has already spent a billion dollars and the department of Public Works has spent more than five years trying to get the company to deliver, they say.

And Sikorsky, too says it's still in the game:

"Sikorsky’s singular focus remains on working closely with the Canadian government to deliver a world-class maritime helicopter," the company said in a statement to CBC News.

"We have a dedicated team of senior executives, experienced engineers, technicians and support staff working with the Canadian government to deliver the world's most technologically advanced and capable maritime helicopter to the men and women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.

"We continue to make strong and steady progress," the statement said.


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