Canada's helicopter procurement saga has already generated enough egg to splatter the face of a great many political figures in Ottawa, from former Premier Jean Chrétien on down. Ironically, it is now two manufacturers short-listed to supply the Maritime Helicopter Project that are shining a cruelly revealing light in the program's darker recesses.
In mid-December, Canada's Department of National Defence short-listed AgustaWestland's EH101)and Sikorsky's S-92 for the C$3 billion MHP contract, having eliminated the NH90 as technically noncompliant because, according to sources familiar with the issue, it did not satisfy 23 of Canada's 3,500 technical requirements.
The NH90's elimination makes the war of words unleashed in January by AgustaWestland and Sikorsky all the more intriguing.
AgustaWestland is arguing that the S-92 is just a prototype that has never flown in a sea-based military operation. In a newspaper ad, said the S-92 is an "unproven prototype still looking for its first purchaser." AgustaWestland officials have also made clear that the S-92 was designed as a civil aircraft, and that by buying an unproven helicopter Canada would assume unnecessary risks.
Sikorsky insists that the EH101s delivered to Canada under an earlier deal have run into a lot of technical problems. "I find it very unusual that an aircraft that first flew 20 years ago still has an availability rate here in Canada of 50 percent," Sikorsky's Lloyd Noseworthy told the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sikorsky also claims the EH101 is slower and costs more than the S-92. [Actually, while the EH101 program began in 1984, the aircraft first flew in 1987.]
Claims and counter-claims are also flying on the issue of delivery dates, a critical point in Canada as the Sea Kings to be replaced are falling apart after more then 40 years of service. Sikorsky says the S-92 can be delivered in four years, even though adapting it to Canadian requirements would require adding folding main rotor blades and tail boom.
AgustaWestland officials ridicule this estimate and claim that the S-92 is still at least eight years away from delivery.
AgustaWestland also faults Canada's stated intention of buying the technically-compliant helicopter that is cheapest, irrespective of any other criteria.
While aimed at each other, all of these statements have one unintended side effect: they show the NH90 in a more favorable light than either of the short-listed contenders. Here's why:
- The NH90 was designed from the outset to a NATO naval helicopter requirement, and has been ordered by a dozen NATO navies or armies.
- It was offered to Canada with the mission equipment package being retrofitted to U.S. Navy Seahawks.
- The NH90 first flew in 1994, and is in production. EH101 first flew 16 years ago and the naval S-92 has not yet flown.
- The NH90 offered firm and early delivery dates.
Thus, apart from the 23 points on which it was judged noncompliant, the NH90 avoids the most widely publicized drawbacks of its more fortunate competitors.
But, taking a closer look, Canada dropped the NH90 because "there is a lack of substantive evidence that [it] is compliant." So the issue is not that NH90 is not compliant, but rather that Canadian officials do not believe NH Industries could make the modifications needed to make it compliant.
What are these modifications so radical that they would stretch the combined technical expertise of Agusta (also an NH90 partner) and Eurocopter? Sources familiar with the competition say that about half of the noncompliance points related to the sand filter required by Canada, and the rest to similarly minor issues.
In other words, the MHP program office trusts Sikorsky to develop the naval S-92 and to deliver it in four years. It trusts AW to fix the EH101's technical problems and accepts its lower speed and higher operating costs. Yet, it does not trust Agusta and Eurocopter to make a sand filter for the NH90.
Even for the country that brought us the longest-running helicopter competition in NATO history, this stretches the imagination.
The real reason, some insiders believe, is that having promised to buy the cheapest compliant helicopter, Canada would have been unable to buy the (more expensive) EH101. The only way to ensure the EH101 won, they say, was to knock out the NH-90 on technical grounds.
Rubbing Chrétien's Nose in It
But why, you ask? Because the Canadian military is determined to buy the EH101 to highlight just how wrong Chrétien was to cancel the original, 1994 purchase by Canada.
This decision cost the defense department C$500 million in contract penalties, and forced Canadian Forces to keep flying obsolete Labrador and Sea King helicopters that were falling out of the sky. Even now that Chrétien has left office, the military still wants to rub his, and other politicians', nose in it.
Admittedly, it seems incredible that an international tender could be manipulated so thoroughly. Yet, is this scenario any more incredible than the many other strange episodes that have marked Canada's 10-year helicopter replacement saga?