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Negotiations between the Canadian government and Leonardo to extend the life of the CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopter fleet until 2040 have stalled, according to CBC.
Citing a briefing document to senior officials, the broadcaster said that a cost estimate provided by the Italian manufacturer to upgrade 14 aircraft to the same standard as the new Norwegian AW101-612 All-Weather Search-and-Rescue Helicopter (NAWSARH) and expand the fleet by two more greatly exceeded the project budget. As a result, “negotiations with the contractor were put on pause due to the proposals being unaffordable,” CBC quoted the document.
In a statement to media, the Department of National Defence confirmed that it had been working with Leonardo “to identify how these updates could be made” since first announcing a plan to upgrade the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) variant of the AW101 to the Norwegian standard in April 2018.
“Extensive discussion and planning determined that upgrading the CH-149 fully to the Norwegian variant of the AW-101 was not a cost-effective solution to effectively meet the RCAF’s needs,” a DND spokesperson said in the statement. “After a year of consultation, it was determined that Leonardo couldn’t do the work at a cost that would respect the project’s overall budget.”
According to CBC, the briefing did not disclose Leonardo’s estimated cost. The project has a budget of around $1.03 billion.
Officials were told in the document that the Cormorant Midlife Upgrade (CMLU) project office and the RCAF are “investigating alternate solutions to address emerging obsolescence with [the] approved budget,” CBC reported.
“One option is a life-extension of the existing helicopters to meet regulatory requirements and upgrade obsolete parts. This would extend the life of the aircraft and leverage its existing capabilities,” DND confirmed in the media statement.
The department did not indicate whether the pause might mean reopening discussions with other manufacturers if it is unable to reach an agreement with Leonardo. Both Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and Airbus had previously requested an open competition, arguing their search-and-rescue helicopters could provide the same service more effectively and efficiently. In interviews with Vertical in 2018, officials with both companies claimed improved availability rates and substantially lower operating costs — as much as 50 percent — over the Cormorant. Sikorsky planned to offer the S-92 in a SAR configuration while Airbus was proposing the H225, part of the Super Puma family.
The Cormorant entered service between 2001 and 2003 and has been plagued by parts obsolescence issues for several years. In the statement, DND acknowledged that “some of the on-board systems are already becoming obsolete and increasingly difficult to support, including engines.”
It also noted that the helicopter must upgrade its aircraft flight management, communications, navigation and safety systems to meet incoming traffic management and regulatory standards. “Intermediate steps are currently being taken within the in-service support program to ensure the helicopter is viable until an upgrade program can be put into place,” DND stated. “These measures include: borrowing parts between maintenance and operational aircraft, buying alternative parts, and increasing the maintenance requirements.”