Federal plans to upgrade search and rescue helicopters based on “unaffordable” cost estimates


The Department of Defense’s program to extend the life of the Air Force’s search and rescue helicopters encountered major obstacles that forced senior officials to restart.

Three years ago, the Liberal government announced plans to refurbish the CH-149 cormorant fleet to maintain the flight of 14 aircraft and save lives until 2042.

It chose to purchase the project exclusively with Leonardo, a European aircraft manufacturer.

Two years ago, on the eve of the last election, Secretary of Defense Hajit Sajan announced that two helicopters would be added to the fleet.

But the newly released Department of Defense (DND) procurement documents show that the company put forward sky-high cost estimates last fall.

“Negotiations with the contractor were put on hold because the proposal was unaffordable,” said a one-page internal presentation used to update senior officials.

‘Alternative solution’

The document does not quote cost estimates. Defense planners have set aside more than $1.03 billion for modernization.

“The project office and RCAF are working on alternative solutions to address emerging outdated issues [the] Approved budget,” the document said.

In a statement issued over the weekend, DND stated that it is currently paying attention to the possibility of extending the life of the CH-149 by replacing outdated parts.

Dan Le Bouthillier, DND Media Relations Manager, said: “One option is to extend the life of existing helicopters to meet regulatory requirements and upgrade obsolete components.”

“This will extend the life of the aircraft and utilize its existing capabilities.”

It is not clear whether the department is considering other solutions-such as returning the upgrade project to open tender.

The department awards the contract before negotiating the price

The original goal of DND was to upgrade the aircraft to be comparable to those used by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, but this was considered too costly.

LeBouthillier defended the decision to negotiate costs after awarding the exclusive source contract, saying that a detailed analysis-including cost estimates-was performed before signing the contract.

“During the definition phase, more in-depth work, including detailed cost calculations based on detailed work instructions and performance specifications, determined that Leonardo’s solution was more expensive than previously thought and exceeded the project budget,” he Say.

The change in the scope of the project made the government decide to purchase two more helicopters; Le Boutihillier said that the focus now is to upgrade the existing fleet.

A Griffin helicopter of the Canadian Army in operation. (Justin Tang/Canada Press)

The Air Force had planned to return the cormorants to the CFB in Trenton, Ontario. After purchasing two additional aircraft. The search and rescue department is now serviced by CH-146 Griffon, which has a shorter range.

“As we are exploring other options for extending the life of the CH-149 Cormorant fleet, replacing the CH-146 Griffon in the search and rescue mission in Trenton remains a consideration,” Le Bouthillier said in a media statement.

The CH-149 cormorant fleet performed its mission for the first time in 2001. Fifteen aircraft were originally purchased; one crashed in Nova Scotia in 2006.

The cormorant is powered by three engines and is known for its long range, large cargo space and rear ramp.

The refurbishment of CH-149 and the addition of reorganized aircraft should be one of the more direct defense procurement projects, scheduled to be completed in 2025. But the document said that all timetables are now problematic, and the Air Force may not have a solution until this time next year.

And this solution, when it appears, may be more expensive.

“The project will require additional [project definition] If the definition phase is extended beyond June 2022, funding may be provided, which is possible given the need to study alternative solutions,” the document said.



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