The CH-146 Griffon helicopter
The 2008 deployment of CH-146 Griffon helicopters to Afghanistan was preceded by a long, vigorous debate that centred on the aircraft's ability to withstand the region's intense temperatures and high altitudes.
"From a technical viewpoint, probably the main concern in the air force — something that might have contributed to the delay or indecision of if they should be sent — would spin on the question of the ability of the helicopter to perform in those hot and high conditions," said Martin Shadwick, a defence analyst and professor at York University.
- Length: 17.1 metres
- Rotor span: 14.1 metres
- Height: 4.6 m.
- Weight: 5,355 kg
- Capacity: 10 passengers plus two pilots and one flight engineer.
Griffons are equipped with Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) including radar jammers and radar and laser warning receivers.
The helicopter's Electronic Warfare System (EWS) recognizes incoming threats and automatically deploys countermeasures.
"Its engines are fine for most domestic requirements in Canada and a more moderate temperature, but [the Griffon] doesn't really have the horsepower to reach its full potential in a place like Afghanistan."
In 2008 Rick Hillier, then chief of defence, was adamant that the Griffons could not fulfill the needs of the Canadian forces.
"We looked at our entire fleets, the Griffon, the Sea King helicopter itself we looked at, of course we decided not to try to deploy that one because of the challenges of maintaining it and keeping it flying in that environment," he said.
Critics rejected the argument, saying that other countries rely on similar helicopters in Afghanistan, and in 2008, six Griffon helicopters were deployed. The helicopters were outfitted with extra sensors and Gatling guns to complement their already existing side-door machine-guns and armour plating.
The decision to use the helicopters was made after careful technical analysis, said retired Lt.-Gen. Lou Cuppens.
"When the discussions took place about Afghanistan it was very quickly determined that when you do the weather analysis, that the aircraft could not carry the same combat load of troops that it could in Canada and land in a temperate climate," Cuppens said. "But all you do then is, you use more of them to do the same mission."
"Looking at operations that we've done elsewhere in the Middle East, with similar aircraft, they all have limitations of some sort and you work with the limitations."
'A superior helicopter'
In Afghanistan, Griffons have been used to provide escort and protection for the larger CH-47D Chinook transport helicopters. They are also used for surveillance purposes, checking for possible threats on the ground.
In response to the deaths of one British and two Canadian soldiers in a CH-146 crash on July 6, about 80 kilometres northeast of Kandahar, National Defence Minister Peter MacKay defended the Griffons.
"I believe the Griffon is a superior helicopter, well-maintained, it's a utility helicopter that serves our interests both in Afghanistan and for purposes here in Canada," MacKay said.
Shadwick notes the Griffons have a strong safety record.
"I believe this is the third helicopter to be lost in a crash — the other two were lost in Canada, both on search and rescue missions domestically," he said. "Its overall safety record has been on the whole pretty good for a helicopter that's now been in service for about a decade, and a fairly large fleet of them."
Military officials have determined that insurgent activity did not cause the July 6 crash. An investigation is underway.