Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper must end Sea King debacle, or else

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Those who were distressed by the federal government's botched attempt at shopping for F-35 stealth fighter jets may wish to stop reading here. News that Public Works Canada is considering abandoning a nine-year-old contract to buy a new fleet of much-needed military helicopters shines a spotlight on a no-less-infuriating procurement debacle.

Canada's attempts to replace our decrepit fleet of 50-year-old Sea King helicopters have amounted to a decades-long farce. It was Brian Mulroney who first commissioned replacement choppers in 1990, only to see his contract cancelled a few years later by Jean Chr®tien at a $478-million penalty. In 2004, Paul Martin sought to buy 28 Cyclone choppers from Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., but the company missed delivery deadlines in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Ottawa may be right that it's time to give up, but some solution is urgently needed. The Sea Kings were grounded earlier this summer after one chopper just fell over.

Major military procurement is a dizzyingly complex endeavour. No government in any country can claim to have reliably avoided the frustrations of delivery delays and unexpected costs that go along with purchasing multibillion-dollar military kit. But the spectacular, costly and utterly fruitless failures of Canada's attempted Cyclone and F-35 procurements, among many others, are exceptional. After all, this summer, the British military did successfully acquire an updated fleet of AugustaWestland Merlins, helicopters that meet all of Canada's specific requirements. We might have done better, and these recent debacles hold clues about how.

Hopefully, for instance, the feds have learned that so-called paper aircraft will not fly. In the case of both the Cyclones and the F-35s, Canada made the mistake of purchasing aircraft that were still in the design phase. As auditor-general Sheila Fraser noted after Sikorsky's first missed deadline in 2005, the Department of Defence had "underestimated and understated the complexity and development nature of the helicopters it intended to buy."

But instead of learning from its mistake, the department continued to ask for more bells and whistles to be added onto the ships, causing additional complications and further delaying delivery. Meanwhile, our naval aviators continue to risk their lives in our geriatric helicopters, perhaps jealously contemplating their British counterparts.

Moreover, experts are unanimous that more transparency about how governments make decisions and how much those decisions cost is essential to effective procurement. It's not surprising politicians are prone to talking around the exact costs of military purchases; the eye-popping multibillion-dollar price tags are bound to inspire trepidation in any reasonable taxpayer. But the Harper government has paid a needless price whenever its lowball estimates have been highlighted by the more exhaustive accounting of the auditor-general or the parliamentary budget officer.

Besides, a more open process would have allowed experts and competitors to warn the government, for instance, that Sikorsky's promised timeline for delivery was implausible. These purchases are too big, too risky and too important to be made in the dark. And the taxpayers who fund them ought to have some assurance the government is making decisions based on accurate accounting and the best advice.

For more than two decades we have been working, at great effort and expense, to replace Canada's broken-down, 50-year-old fleet of helicopters -- and we're no further along today than when we started. Taxpayers have paid a price, our military more so. If the Harper government cannot show it is capable of fixing the busted procurement process it inherited, the Conservatives, too, may pay dearly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 A9

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