PARIS — Canadian soldiers have a history of being let down by their governments and being left to operate outdated, costly and maintenance-hungry weapons so that their politicians can make whatever point they are hoping to score. Nowhere has this malign neglect been clearer than in the field of helicopters.
Readers will remember the disgraceful “gold-plated Cadillac” episode, in which former Prime Minister Jean-Loup Chrétien, on taking office, canceled a contract let by the previous government to buy 44 AgustaWestland EH101 (now AW101) helicopters that he claimed were unaffordable. This left Canadian forces flying obsolete Boeing Vertol 107s (CH-113 Labradors) and Westland Sea Kings for an extra decade, including in the vital search and rescue role.
Despite Chrétien’s best efforts to derail subsequent helicopter purchases, Canada was ultimately forced to buy the very same EH101s simply because no other helicopter matched its capabilities. The end result is that Canada paid close to C$500 million in penalties for canceling the original contract, paid higher prices for the EH101s it eventually bought, and lost several air crews when the older helicopters that should have been replaced a decade earlier fell out of the sky. So when Canadian soldiers speak of neglect, they know what they’re talking about.
Fast-forward to today’s deployment in Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers were sent with negligible rotary-wing assets even though helicopters are the only certain way to avoid roadside bombs that have accounted for a large share of allied casualties. For example, 27 of the last 33 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan died as a result of roadside bombs or land mines. The proportion is similar for other countries.
Six years on, Canadian soldiers are still being forced to rely on allied generosity for helicopter transport, while other countries, notably the U.K., have procured additional choppers under emergency procedures. Even small countries, like the Netherlands, own enough helicopters to be able to deploy Eurocopter Cougars when their Chinooks return home at the end of their tour.
No such rush for Canada, however: the government waited until the summer of 2006 to order 16 Boeing CH-47F Chinooks in a C$4.7 billion package. The first helicopters would not be available for delivery until 2013, however, and the CH-47 order backlog at Boeing meant deliveries could not be brought forward.
This left Canadian forces in Afghanistan no better off, but the Canadian government took two years to come up with the solution: buying six used CH-47Ds from the U.S. that should be operational by next spring and, in the meantime, wet-leasing six Mil Mi-8s from a civilian contractor for up to C$36 million.
“The helicopters will allow commanders the flexibility to reduce ground-based resupply convoys and more easily reach remote locations in challenging environments where they could be at risk of ambushes, land mines and improvised explosive devices,” said Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of Canada’s defence staff.
Canada is not alone among NATO governments to sit on its hands while its forces in Afghanistan or Iraq take casualties from roadside bombs because of helicopter shortages. Most governments, in fact, act as if talk alone will fix the problem.
Witness the May 26 declaration by the steering board of the European Defence Agency, in which ministers stated “their determination to improve the operational availability of helicopters, noting that shortfalls in helicopter availability constrained [European Union] and other international crisis management operations.”
“Despite large numbers in European inventories, there remains a shortage of helicopters that can actually be deployed on operations,” Javier Solana, the head of the agency, added. “This is true in all operations theatres.” Indeed.
However, this “determination” has so far had no visible effect. Six years after being deployed to Southwest Asia, troops of most NATO or EU countries are not notably better off in terms of helicopters — or any other military capability.
The reason is that governments are afraid of violent voter reactions to unpopular foreign adventures launched under false pretenses. They are too scared to take any action at all, like rabbits caught in headlights, and hope that the entire nightmare will go away. It won’t.
European voters, like Canadians, have so far been unconscionably uninterested in defense, and all too happy to cash in the peace dividend. But there is a point when the sight of body bags coming home will prove too much for any electorate. At that time, governments will wish they had done more to avoid unnecessary combat deaths.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates realized this, and belatedly launched an urgent, $22 billion program to develop and deploy 22,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles to Afghanistan and Iraq.
European governments, whose smaller forces need far smaller investments, should act just as urgently to deploy extra helicopters as fast as possible. That is the very least they can do to mitigate the mindless folly with which they acceded to U.S. pressure to contribute forces to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.