Chops for AOPS – Providing the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) with an ‘organic air capability’

Ed: Originally Published on the Canadian American Strategic Review. Worth re-upping here as the Royal Canadian Navy will soon see it’s first AOPV, and they still have no helicopter for organic operations.

See Part Two: ‘Loach’ Scout & SOF – Bringing back the CAF’s Light Observation Helicopter

The Canadian Government recently announced a contract with Irving Shipbuilding to build 5-6 Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). This is welcome news. Progress is being made, and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is scheduled to see the first of the AOPS delivered in 2018. With AOPS now a fait accompli, discussions over the compromises combining the disparate roles of Arctic and temperate-water Offshore Patrol should now be ended. Soon enough Canadians will have their answer written in steel.

One of the greatest compromises in the AOPS program is that the vessels are to be equipped ‘for, but not with’ an organic air capability. This is undoubtedly a cost-saving measure, since embarking a shipboard helicopter on a full-time basis would be an expensive proposition. [1]

Harry DeWolf class Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships and the need for Shipboard Helicopters

AOPS is to be able to carry the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone Maritime Helicopter. [2] But AOPS operations would make scant use of the capabilities of a Cyclone-sized aircraft. AOPS is not a good match for a sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter – AOPS is not an ASW platform nor will the ship be tasked with that role.

What the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship really needs is something the Canadian Forces cannot currently provide – a lighter and more general-purpose rotary-wing airframe which can carry out missions better suited to the Northern Patrol and Sovereignty Assertion roles of AOPS.

AOPS Chops: Once you’ve found a shipboard helicopter suited to AOPS, what would it do?

Tasks for any full-time AOPS shipboard helicopter would include: ice reconnaissance (in the Arctic), vertical replenishment (VERTREP) supply, search and rescue, support of naval boarding parties, and examination of suspect shipping. Almost all these roles are non-combat – but the ice reconnaissance role, especially, will be vital to AOPS operations in Arctic waters. For such roles, the use of aircraft as large as the new CH-148 Cyclones is unwarranted.

So, which available helicopter type would best meet the anticipated use as an AOPS organic air capability? Using the ‘All of Government ‘ approach advocated by CASR , the ideal light shipboard helicopter for AOPS use would be the same light helicopter already being bought for similar employment with the Canadian Coast Guard – the assembled-in-Canada Bell 429.

The Made in Montréal Solution – Bell Helicopter Textron Canada’s 429 GlobalRanger

An RCAF Bell 429-derived AOPS shipboard helicopter would have some differences from its CCG relative. Changes would include an ASE [3] fit and avionics compatibility with military requirements. An electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret would allow the helicopter to operate more effectively in poor light conditions and carry out more generalized military roles. DND would also need to consider possible weapons kits – including a pintle-mounted door gun.

Bell 429 image from CASR, created by Stephen Priestley. Used with his kind permission. Shown equipped with a thimble radome for a weather radar, an EO/IR turret and a searchlight.

A ‘militarized’ Bell 429 would have potential beyond a small fleet of AOPS shipboard aircraft. Being faster and smaller than a similarly-equipped CH-146 Griffon utility helicopter, a Bell 429 would also make a better ‘scout’ helicopter. [4] It is worth noting that the B429 was designed by Bell with noise reduction as a major consideration. [5] The reduced noise signature alone would make a militarized 429 an attractive option for many militaries – including that of its home country.

Shipboard Helicopters – Flight deck requirements for the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships

The Harry DeWolf class, as AOPS will be known in RCN service, is to have a flight deck and hangar to accommodate a single RCAF medium-sized helicopter – either the CH-148 Cyclone Maritime Helicopter or the RCAF’s CH-149 Cormorant SAR Helicopter. The overall length of the Bell 429 is only 13.10 m compared with the CH-148’s 16 m length when folded for stowing in a ship’s hangar. Unlike purpose-built naval helicopters, the standard B429 has no powered rotor folding. However, a manual main rotor folding kit is available for the 429 which reduces the Bell’s width to just over 2 m – ideal for compact stowage. See: B429 Sidebar for details.

Canadian Procurement Conundrums: How to get militarized Bell 429s into RCAF service?

In May 2014, the Canadian Coast Guard placed its order for 15 Bell Model 429 shipboard aircraft to satisfy its Light Helicopter requirement. Extending that CCG contract to acquire further Bell Model 429s for the Royal Canadian Air Force has a number of advantages. First, it puts the Government of Canada in a good position to demand prices based on a higher volume purchase. [6] Second, the common use of a virtually identical helicopter airframe would allow the Canadian Coast Guard and RCAF to share maintenance and training, further leveraging those costs.

So what is the end result for the Government of Canada? Two virtually identical helicopter requirements combined into one (albeit extended ) acquisition, paid for by the one taxpayer.

NOTE: The CCG order has been completed, with all examples now delivered. An opportunity lost.

[1] The direct operating costs for the CH-148 Cyclone are not published. The Sikorsky S-92, Cyclone’s much lighter civilian predecessor has hourly direct operating costs around $3000. For sake of comparison, operating costs for a Bell 429 are about one-quarter that of an S-92.

[2] The PMO AOPS Proposed Ship Capabilities reads: “AOPS may be required to be capable of embarking and operating, in up to sea state 3, an on-board organic helicopter, up to and including a CH 148 CYCLONE, [together] with one flying [crew] and one maintenance crew.”

[3] Aircraft Survivability Equipment include electronic countermeasures, add-on armour, etc.

[4] Physically smaller and faster ‘scout’ helicopters have an advantage above the battlefield. That size and speed allows for surprise while making for a more elusive target for the enemy.

[5] Bell’s emphasis on noise reduction sprang from the main intended user for the Model 429, the emergency medical services industry (making any military B429 ideal for a medevac role).

[6] This is not to suggest that the CCG contract must be re-negotiated. Rather, its terms can be expanded to include the RCAF order with appropriate discounts for the total GoC order.


15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Arctic, Canadian American Strategic Review, Canadian Forces, CASR, RCAF, RCN, Sovereignty
One comment on “Chops for AOPS – Providing the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) with an ‘organic air capability’
  1. […] See Part One: Chops for AOPS – Providing the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) with an ‘organi… […]


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Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

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