Column

RESTORING FALLEN KINGS

Paul Martin’s first test will be replacing obsolete but costly helicopters

Peter C. Newman October 20 2003
Column

RESTORING FALLEN KINGS

Paul Martin’s first test will be replacing obsolete but costly helicopters

Peter C. Newman October 20 2003

RESTORING FALLEN KINGS

Column

PETER C. NEWMAN

Paul Martin’s first test will be replacing obsolete but costly helicopters

OCCASIONALLY OUR Natural Governing Party goes haywire. Some issues and policies are so far beyond it that its leaders insist on carrying twigs to their own funeral pyre, then provide the matches to light them.

That is an overly generous summary of how Jean Chrétien has handled the replacement of Canada’s decrepit maritime helicopters. The kicker is that Paul Martin will face the same agonizing dilemma. It will be his first hard leadership test. The issue is not whether to

replace these flying coffins, better known as Sea Kings. That was decided 16 years ago. The question is, should we go for the cheapest model, or the best value? Fed up beyond endurance by all the political shillyshallying, the military at this point just wants something, anything that will lift off ship decks without crashing. And it needs it yesterday.

But the issue is much more complicated than that, and the Prime Minister’s footdragging for a decade is vintage Chrétien. He made the mistake of cancelling the orig-

inal contract, simply because it was let by a Tory government, and has done zip to repair the damage. These events are worth recording because future historians will doubt that anyone could be that inept and still get his right mitten on the right hand.

The original Sea Kings were delivered in 1963, which happened to be the year Chrétien was first elected to the Commons. Few could have guessed that the ’copter and the

politician would be equally difficult to replace.

In 1987, the Mulroney government opted to replace the nearly 25-year-old, obsolete units as well as the equally old Labrador search-and-rescue helicopters. Following a straightforward competitive process, it chose 50 EH-101 multi-purpose ’copters from a British-Italian manufacturer. But in the 1993 election campaign, Chrétien promised to cancel the $4.8-billion contract because he claimed it was too rich for Ottawa’s budget—and did so as his first order of business after winning office. That wasted $478 million, which Ottawa had to pay under a contract cancellation penalty clause.

In 1996, the government opened up bidding again, this time limiting itself to 15 search-and-rescue units. The politically neutral competitive procurement process awarded the contract to the same manufacturer

that Mulroney had chosen. This drove Chrétien over the edge.

Furious with the military bureaucrats for making him look petty, he launched a series of diversionary delaying tactics before reluctantly accepting the relatively small contract. But he vowed to switch contractors for 28 new military helicopters.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s nephew, Raymond Chrétien, then ambassador to France, was thought to have negotiated an informal commitment to buy helicopters from a French-led consortium, operating in partnership with Lockheed Martin Canada. Their NH-90 chopper is considerably cheaper, but not nearly as flexible or as battleready or, some claim, safe as the competing models. Ottawa is awash with stories that Chrétien and French President Jacques Chirac have an understanding that the French firm will be awarded the Sea King replacement sale.

To make this purchase more feasible, the PM ordered the contract split into two parts: one for the aircraft and the other, opening it up to Canadian firms, for the mission systems required to equip it. According to internal DND estimates, this added another $400 million to the ’copter’s cost.

When he became minister of national defence last year, John McCallum recognized the folly of this unnecessary expense, and recombined the bidding process into a single tender. Since then, his bouts of having to abjectly apologize for his string of verbal goofs has significantly reduced his influence. But he has gathered strong allies in Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and Auditor General Sheila Fraser, who have come down firmly on the side of buying the best, instead of the cheapest. About-to-become prime minister Paul Martin has also come out squarely for quality: “I want the very, very best helicopter for our troops. Period.”

The “best value” against “best price” debate continues, and the Sea Kings keep

SURELY we owe the brave, if not foolhardy, Sea King pilots this much: that their successor aircraft is the best, meaning safest, machine money can buy

crashing. Today’s estimated $3.1-billion order is not only the largest single purchase on Ottawa’s defence equipment shopping list, but the decision has long-term implications. Its impact will be felt for at least another 25 years, the predicted life cycle of the new units. At the moment, it takes 30 hours of maintenance to keep a Sea King in the air for one hour. (Nobody is counting the number of rolls of duct tape used to keep these Jurassic contraptions flying. If I were a Canadian defence contractor, I’d bid on the duct tape franchise, instead of bothering with the flying end of the procurement process.)

Surely the least we owe the brave, if not foolhardy, pilots who risk their lives jockeying the pathetic remnants of the Sea King fleet, this much: that their successor aircraft is the best (meaning safest) machine money can buy. Politics should not

be allowed to poison the process.

DND bureaucrats, who are now willing to settle for any replacement helicopter, fear further delays will jeopardize the entire project. They’re telling McCallum that any shift in specifications (which might favour one of the non-French competitors) would stall the decision for years. My Ottawa sources flatly deny that claim; they swear the switch can be made within three months or less. But even these reformminded functionaries hardly earn the title of being Speedy Gonzales. They figure the actual bidding and contract negotiations would take at least another eight months, so that the deal wouldn’t be signed until November 2004. That would merely start the process. The best guess for the actual delivery of the operational fleet to replace the Sea King fleet is 2012, a quarter century after the replacement process was launched.

In fact, nothing may happen. The other companies competing for the contract: AgustaWestland, makers ofthe EH-101, now renamed Cormorant and Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky have quietly served notice that if they lose to the French, they will launch massive legal claims, based on charges of bid-rigging and political interference. That could delay the decision indefinitely.

Certainly, national defence is taking no chances. Last May, it quietly signed a $306million maintenance contract with I.M.P. Group International Inc. of Halifax that could keep the Sea Kings more or less operational for another 11 years. By then, I imagine only one of the defunct whirlybirds will actually be able to stay in the air for more than 20 minutes. It will have been assembled with parts cannibalized from the remaining Sea Kings, whose skeletons will be housed in various museums as evocative artifacts of the Chrétien era. fill

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca