October 29, 2006 
Defence Department wants new navy helicopters to carry troops
By MURRAY BREWSTER

OTTAWA (CP) - Ottawa has quietly amended its contract with the maker of the navy's new Cyclone helicopters to ensure that the choppers will not only be able to hunt submarines, but also carry troops.

The design change, expected to add roughly $5 million to the overall price tag, would allow the air force to assign the choppers to a wide variety of different roles - including potential air support for the army in Afghanistan.

The Defence Department, however, denies that it's making the move with the Afghan mission specifically in mind.

Col. Dave Burt, director of air requirements for the department, acknowledged that being able to strip the H-92 quickly of its sonar and radar gear, and strap in troop seats, was not part of the initial design for the Cyclones, the long-awaited replacements for the decades-old Sea Kings.

The change "will provide us with far better flexibility and capability," said Burt.

As it stands, Canadian soldiers operating in Afghanistan must hitch chopper rides into battle with other NATO countries.

But the decision to order the change to the Cyclone was not directly driven by the need for air support among Canada's 2,500 troops in Kandahar, said Burt.

Nor has there been any decision to send the choppers to Afghanistan after they begin rolling off the assembly line in 2008, he said.

"There was no specific theatre - or specific event - that was brought to mind when the decision was made, This was done in the interest of transformation of the Forces."

All three branches of the military are in the midst of a major shake-up orchestrated by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, who is trying to break down the traditional barriers between the army, air force and navy. The idea is to make them more nimble and able to respond rapidly to crises at home and aboard.

As part of that plan Hillier wants to see the navy purchase or build an amphibious landing transport - or "Big Honkin' Ship," as he calls it - to rapidly deploy soldiers to global hot spots. Troop-carrying helicopters are a must for that kind of warship.

The air force is already preparing for its new role by training existing Sea King pilots on the finer points of picking up and dropping off troops.

The former Liberal government signed a $1.8 billion deal with Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of Stratford, Conn., to build 28 helicopters and begin delivering one per month starting in November 2008. In addition, the company won a $3.2 billion, 20-year service contract.

In the meantime, there has been speculation that the breakdown-prone Sea Kings might see service in Afghanistan, in the hope that airlifts could help stem the tide of casualties from roadside bomb attacks.

The design changes ordered to the Cyclone will not affect its 2008 delivery date, said Burt.

Ideally, the air force would like to see mechanics able to rip out the helicopter's submarine-hunting gear and replace it with troop seats on demand. Converting the Sea Kings from one role to another is a long, painful process that requires putting the aircraft into the shop for months at a time.