Canada Sending Armed Bell 412s to Afghanistan
In December 2005, “Canada Purchases $200M in Equipment for Operation ARCHER in Afghanistan” noted the issues created by Canada’s complete lack of integrated in-theater battlefield helicopter support. Events since that date have been instructive.
That complete lack of helicopters eventually became a large political problem. When the January 2008 Manley Report [PDF] was delivered to Parliament, it effectively made Canada’s continued military presence in Afghanistan contingent on fielding an adequate solution by February 2009. Canada’s delayed CH-47F Chinook buy wouldn’t arrive quickly enough, so the government wound up buying 6 used CH-47Ds from the US Army in August 2008 – more than 2 years after calls for exactly that course of action had begun.
Those helicopters will still need escorts, however, and so will some convoys. Meanwhile, allied AH-64 Apaches or Mi-24 Hinds are in high demand, and are not always available. A September 2006 article from the CASR think tank had suggested turning Canada’s CH-146 Griffon/ Bell 412 helicopters into light armed reconnaissance helicopters, making a virtue of necessity given the type’s limited carrying capacity in hot and high altitude conditions.
In fall 2007, however, the (appointed) Liberal Party Senator Colin Kenny was ridiculed by Canada’s defense minister for suggesting the very same thing.
Sen. Kenny wanted to the Griffons to act as surveillance choppers, and to haul some light supplies and troops. The Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese reports that:
“The Air Force responded that the Griffons couldn’t operate in Kandahar’s high altitude and heat.
“It is unfortunate that Senator Kenny doesn’t know his facts,” stated Mr. MacKay’s office. “There is no intent to deploy the Griffon to Afghanistan…”
In February 2008, however, the Canadian government issued a MERX solicitation for Dillon Aero’s 6-barrel, 7.62mm M134D minigun. The M134D is an improved M134/GAU-2 with new pintle mounts, including a ‘Huey’ mount for helicopters like the Canadian Forces’ CH-146 Griffon. This is very likely to be the helicopters’ sole armament, but its accuracy and high volume of fire may be enough for escort duties in Afghanistan.
In July 2008, “INGRESS: New Eyes for Canada’s Griffon Helicopters” covered the next step in that process: day/night sensor turrets, some of which would have “escort” (i.e. laser targeting and ranging) capabilities, to be fitted to existing CH-146 side mounts.
On Nov 26/08, Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay announced that 8 CH-146 Griffon helicopters from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron based in Edmonton, Alberta will be deployed to Afghanistan in early 2009 as part of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTFA) – Air Wing, alongside CH-147D Chinook helicopters and Heron UAVs. Another 6 chartered civilian Mi-8 helicopters are expected to round out the force.
This episode reiterates a number of oft re-learned lessons for the military procurement field:
# Battlefield helicopter support is a requirement for any significant combat deployment, and adequate numbers must be present in inventory beforehand. Both Canada and Britain have experienced significant issues with this on the front lines of the current war.
# Flexibility and “good enough” solutions, implemented and fielded quickly to the fighting front lines, are better than waiting for an ideal solution.
# Defense debates where reformers clash with “professional opinion” should not be dismissed merely by virtue of that clash; the argument must still be joined, and justified.
July 6/09: A Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter crashes during take-off at a Forward Operating Base in Tarnak Va Jaldak, Zabul Province, northeast of Kandahar City. “An ISAF soldier” and 2 Canadian soldiers were killed, 2 more Canadian soldiers were injured but have since returned to duty, and another Canadian soldier is in stable condition in hospital.
An investigation will follow, but it has been announced that enemy fire did not cause this incident. DND release.