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HELICOPTER REPORT

HELICOPTER REPORT

BY JAMES CARELESS

HMCS Ottawa’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone helicopter ‘GREYWOLF’ conducts a flare and chaff launch exercise during INDO-PACIFIC deployment on September 4th, 2023 Credit: Aviator Gregory Cole, CAF

ROTARY WING

Managing the CAF’s Helicopter Fleets for Today and Tomorrow 

Whether transporting troops, conducting search and rescue (SAR) missions, or searching for submarines while patrolling the world’s oceans, Canada’s military helicopters fly a wide array of missions in defence of Canadians and our allies worldwide. In CDR’s Annual Helicopter Report, we detail the status of the RCAF’s four helicopter fleets in 2023, and where Canadian military rotorcraft aviation may go in the years to come.

The RCAF’s four helicopter fleets consist of CH-146 Griffons, CH-147F Chinooks, CH-148 Cyclones, and CH-149 Cormorants respectively. Here is a rundown of their current fleet status, deployments, and ongoing improvements in 2023. Note: CDR thanks the Department of National Defence for its help in compiling this detailed and updated report.

CH-146 GRIFFON

Based on the Bell 412EP civilian helicopter, the CH-146 Griffon utility tactical-transport helicopter moves troops and materiel. The Griffon is also used to provide aerial firepower, casualty evacuations, counter-drug operations, SAR operations, and surveillance and reconnaissance missions. There are currently 83 operational aircraft and two maintenance training aircraft in the RCAF’s CH-146 Griffon fleet.

The majority of the CH-146 fleet is assigned to 1 Wing, which is the RCAF’s Tactical Aviation Wing. 1 Wing is now integrating 417 Combat Support Squadron (4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta) and 439 Combat Support Squadron (3 Wing Bagotville, Québec) into its operations to recover RCAF pilots who have ejected from their aircraft.

427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (located at CFB Petawawa, Ontario) operates CH-146s under Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. CH-146 Griffons also fly SAR missions with the 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 8 Wing (Trenton, Ontario), and local base rescue support to training, operations and exercises at 5 Wing (Goose Bay, Newfoundland-Labrador).

According to DND, CH-146 Griffons are regularly deployed with Operation LENTUS, which provides domestic disaster response in support of provincial governments. Internationally, CH-146 Griffons and CH-147F Chinooks were most recently deployed in Mali as part of Operation PRESENCE. They were part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Forward Aeromedical Evacuation capability in support of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The RCAF received its Griffons in the 1990s. Mindful that technology keeps advancing and that aircraft age, DND is extending the CH-146’s operational lifespan into the 2030s through the Griffon Limited Life Extension (GLLE) program, which is being managed under contract by Bell Textron Canada Limited (Bell), the CH-146’s Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM).

Through GLLE, the Griffons will be updated and improved by replacing a number of the aircraft’s avionics systems (including communications radios and cryptographic equipment, cockpit voice and flight recorders, navigation systems, automatic flight control systems, and control display units), upgrading engines, and integrating sensor systems. The project is in its testing phase, with the first GLLE developmental aircraft test flight due to fly in Spring 2024.

“DND’s decision to continue with Griffon operations until at least the mid-2030s is generating interest by current military users of the Bell 412 to follow a similar path,” said Marc Bigaouette, Bell’s Director of Canadian Government Programs. “It should be noted that the conceptual work for this new platform is entirely done in Canada. This, along with the fact that we have selected Pratt & Whitney Canada and CMC Electronics as partners, means that the level of Canadian content associated with this project is substantial and potentially unrivalled for an undertaking of this kind. Also, in an effort to expand the base of expertise for this new variant of the Bell 412, more than 85% of the fleet will be modified by our partners Alpine Aerotech and Heli-One.”

: 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron Griffon in Victoria for Special Forces training Credit: Joetey Attariwala

CH-147F CHINOOK 

The Boeing CH-147F Chinook is a multi-mission, medium/heavy-lift helicopter used to transport equipment and personnel during domestic or deployed operations. The RCAF’s Chinooks are operated by 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (Petawawa, Ontario) under 1 Wing. The Chinook supports the Canadian Army and Special Operations Forces, plus other government departments, law enforcement agencies and civil authorities when requested. There are currently 14 aircraft in the RCAF’s CH-147F Chinook fleet.

Like its Griffon counterpart, the CH-147F Chinook is deployed as needed with Operation LENTUS, and internationally in support of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

In June 2023, the Royal Canadian Air Force lost one CH-147F Chinook in a tragic accident at Garrison Petawawa, Ont. that claimed the lives of pilots Capt. Marc Larouche and Capt. David Domagala. The RCAF’s Directorate of Flight Safety investigation into the accident is ongoing.

The Chinook fleet has received a number of improvements recently. They include an Emergency Locator Transmitter upgrade, a secure radio modernization (UHF/VHF/HF), and an Extended Range Fueling System (ERFS). According to DND, an extensive avionics upgrade under the Multi-Fleet Air Traffic Management Avionics (MFATMA) project is now in the engineering phase. It will add Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast Out (ADS-B Out), Performance-Based Navigation, and new transponders to the CH-147Fs.

Sometime in the future, DND intends to execute a Chinook Mid-Life Block Upgrade (CMBU). This will likely be in tandem with the upcoming next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS) program, which is described later on in this article.

CH-148 CYCLONE

The CH-148 Cyclone is Canada’s ship-borne maritime helicopter. It provides air support to the Royal Canadian Navy, and serves roles in surface and subsurface surveillance, search and rescue, utility transport and more. There are currently 25 aircraft in the RCAF’s CH-148 Cyclone fleet.

The CH-148 fleet has been on a high operational tempo with Helicopter Air Detachments (HELAIRDETs) and is deployed with Royal Canadian Navy ships around the world on an ongoing basis. In 2022, there were five HELAIRDETs deployed simultaneously, and most recently, the Cyclone has been deployed on operations like NEON, PROJECTION and REASSURANCE.

The crash of the RCAF CH-148 ‘Stalker-22′, while deployed on HMCS Fredericton on April 29, 2020, resulted in the deaths of all six personnel onboard. The RCAF’s Directorate of Flight Safety “investigation concluded that during a complex turning manoeuvre at low altitude, when the helicopter was returning to the ship, the aircraft did not respond as the crew would have expected due to a Command Model Attitude Bias Phenomenon,” said a DND/CAF news release issued June 28, 2021. “This phenomenon develops under a very specific and narrow set of circumstances where manual inputs to the primary flight controls override the aircraft’s automation system, referred to as the Flight Director, while it is engaged and set to fly at a fixed airspeed or pitch attitude. The bias that developed in this instance resulted in insufficient aft cyclic controller authority, resulting in a high-energy descent and impact with the water.”

According to DND, the RCAF is addressing the issues that led to this crash. A case in point: “The CH-148 Cyclone’s CR2.1 modification has resumed, following successful radar software upgraded trials and Flight Control System (FCS) flight trials are planned for April 2024,” DND told CDR. “The Flight Control System (FCS) lets the pilot temporarily override the Flight Director, which is like an auto-pilot. However, some maneuvers can make the pilot and the FD disagree, which can create some risk. The FCS improvements will keep an eye on the system for these possible problems and let the pilot know about them. On top of that, it will immediately disconnect the FD, giving the pilot full control of the aircraft if needed. The visual warning system has also been improved to make the pilots more aware.”

CH-149 CORMORANT

The CH-149 Cormorant made by Leonardo Helicopters is a long-range medium lift helicopter dedicated to search and rescue. It can carry up to 12 stretchers or loads up to 5,000 kilograms. There are currently 13 aircraft in the RCAF’s CH-149 Cormorant fleet.

The CH-149 Cormorant continually supports RCAF SAR missions on Canada’s east and west coasts. It also periodically aids NORAD operations in Canada’s North through SAR coverage. This included a recent short-term deployment to CFS Alert in February 2022.

After 20-years of service life, the CH-149 Cormorant fleet will now undergo a mid-life upgrade. Shortly after the release of CDR’s Helicopter Report in 2022, DND awarded Team Cormorant a $1 billion contract for the AW101/CH-149 Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) project. Team Cormorant is a collaboration of Leonardo and is supported by its principle Canadian subcontractor IMP Aerospace and Defence together with GE Canada, and Collins Aerospace Canada. The majority of the CMLU work will be performed in Canada, primarily at IMP’s Halifax facilities.

CMLU will upgrade the current 13 511 CH-149 variants to the 615 variant standard and add another three more CH-149s 615 variants to the fleet. DND is projecting Initial Operation Capability in 2027 for the CMLU fleet and Full Operational Capability in 2029.

“The CMLU Project will include state-of-the-art avionics, a new glass cockpit, more powerful digitally-controlled engines, wireless in-cabin communications, and the latest SAR sensors including Electro Optical Infra-Red device and Mobile Phone Detection Location System – enabling less search and more rescue,” said Dominic Howe, Head of Campaigns – America and Canada at Leonardo Helicopters. “The CMLU Project shall eliminate obsolescence, in the most part, in the avionic systems that are now over 20 years old. In addition, the Cormorant’s engine shall be replaced with a modular constructed engine with digital full authority control providing greater power with reduced pilot workload.”

nTACS

Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russian encroachment on Canada’s territorial sovereignty in the Arctic, aggressive Chinese military activity escalating in the Indo-Pacific, the threat of Russian submarines in the Atlantic returning to Cold War levels, and natural disasters occurring more frequently, it seems likely that Canada’s four helicopter fleets will have to fly more missions in an increasingly hostile global environment.

These growing demands come at a time when the RCAF’s helicopters are aging, DND’s budget is being cut by nearly $1 billion, and CAF personnel are hard to find and retain. Factors like these explain why RCAF Commander Lieutenant-General Eric Kenny made this frank and stunning admission at the 2023 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 7, 2023. “I’m very concerned right now about our ability to do our job effectively against the current threats,” he said. “As long as we stay in the competition phase, we’re fine. [But if] We get into conflict: We need to rapidly evolve our efforts because we’re not ready, quite frankly, with what we have right now.”

Mindful that the ways of war are changing and that the helicopters need to address them must change as well, the RCAF has launched the ‘next Tactical Aviation Capability Set’ (nTACS) project. The person in charge of nTACS is Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Morris, the RCAF’s Director of Air Requirements for Tactical Aviation.

In an exclusive interview with CDR, Lt-Col. Morris described nTACS as “a project that the RCAF has started in anticipation of a requirement to modernize our tactical aviation capabilities around the early to mid-2030s, as well as obviously provide a replacement for what will be an aged fleet of CH-146 Griffons at that time. It’s looking to provide a set of modern tactical aviation capabilities from the mid 2030s onward, along with the anticipated upgraded Chinooks as well to provide a modern tactical aviation capability set for the Canadian forces.”

Worth noting: “I would like to emphasize it is not currently envisioned strictly as a Griffin replacement,” he told CDR. “We’re looking at replacing the Griffin capabilities as well as acquiring new capabilities such as credible aerial reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as aerial firepower capabilities.” 

FARA & FLRAA

Right now, the nTACS project is in its identification phase and “there are no specific platforms that we’re considering at this time,” said Lt-Col. Morris. However, since the RCAF’s intent will be to acquire something military-off-the-shelf or MOTS aircraft that is being used by other nations — “we’re not looking at developing a unique Canadian solution” — the RCAF is looking closely at the US Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program.

This program consists of two major subprograms: FARA (Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft) and FLRAA (Future Long Range Assault Aircraft). The two contenders for the FARA contract are the Bell 360 Invictus helicopter and Sikorsky’s Raider X. Meanwhile, the Bell V280 Valor tiltrotor won the FLRAA contract in December 2022, which will see it replace the UH-60 Black Hawk.

“We’re following the FVL program closely,” Lt-Col Morris said. “We sit on an international working group along with some other key allies; sharing information and tracking that program very closely because it potentially may not only inform our project, but provide a solution or part of the solution that we’re looking for in nTACS.”

The FVL program isn’t the only source of possible options for Canada’s nTACS project. “We’re also involved with the NATO Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project, which is looking at the future medium lift helicopter solution for a number of NATO partners,” said Lt-Col Morris. “We currently have observer status and expect to be — in the very near future — a full participant for the concept development phase of that project. The benefits of doing so, obviously, is that we get access to a lot of research and analysis that will inform not only the NGRC project, but also our nTACS project here in Canada.”

Also worth noting: Although the nTACS project is keeping a close eye on the choices being made/to be made by the FVL and NGRC programs, DND does not feel bound by them “As I mentioned right at the beginning, right now we’re keeping our options wide open and we’re looking at potential solutions with a very wide, wide field of view,” Lt-Col. Morris said. “There’s the potential that they might be the solutions for sure, especially with the FVL down-selecting the Bell V280 tiltrotor as the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. That [choice] comes with some pretty compelling attributes that would definitely be beneficial for Canada, based on our geographic situation as well as in the long distances that we operate with domestically — but also [that] we are a Pacific nation and that operating theatre poses similar challenges as the Arctic in terms of requiring the ability to transit long distances to operate effectively.”

AI-ENABLED SMART MUNITIONS

nTACS is also interested in armed uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can operate in concert with crewed helicopters/tiltrotors, serving in a function that Lt-Col. Morris refers to as AI-enabled ‘smart munitions’. “You can put different payloads on them, whether they be kinetic or electronic warfare payloads or intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance payloads,” he explained. “They are very versatile, enabling future tactical aviation extensively and increasing capabilities exponentially.”

That’s not all: DND also hopes to maximize the potential of interactive networked assets on the battlefield, including any aerial assets that will be identified by the nTACS project team. “The intent would be – to the maximum extent possible – that systems on the aircraft are fully integrated and are able to feed battlefield networks and receive information on the networks as well,” said Lt-Col. Morris. “You’ve probably heard that every aircraft in this case on the battlefield will be a sensor, and that’s certainly the goal.”

DND also wants assets identified through nTACS to incorporate open system architecture, which would facilitate the rapid integration of new technologies as they are put into military service. This would be a major change from how proprietary systems have to be integrated with each other now, “which takes a significant amount of time and a significant amount of resources, and doesn’t allow us to basically keep up with the rapid change in technology as well,” Lt-Col Morris told CDR.

Finally, the assets identified by the nTACS project have to be affordable and sustainable. “That means in terms of the cost per flying hour or whatever metric you want to use, but it needs to be affordable,” said Lt-Col. Morris. “From a sustainment point of view, we want to ensure that whatever solutions we have, that they’re ready and available to the maximum extent possible with obviously the minimum amount of effort to achieve that.”

Whether the nTACS project actually steers the source of RCAF rotorcraft aviation remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The RCAF knows that it needs a modern and even novel approach to helicopter-style flight going forward, and it is proactively examining the available options and possibilities using the nTACS project process.

James Careless is CDR’s Ottawa Bureau Chief

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