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The CH-147F Chinook fleet might have less than a decade of service on its airframes, but the heavily used helicopters are due for a midblock upgrade.
“We are reaching the point with some components and systems where we’re dealing with obsolescence — or will be dealing with obsolescence in the near future,” said LCol Richard Morris, who is responsible for tactical aviation under the Director of Air Requirements, also known as DAR 9.
While the primary focus of the upgrade will be on components that are difficult to repair and replace, as well as on enhancing onboard systems, the RCAF is aligning the project with ongoing work on the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set. Also known as nTACS, it’s a program that will eventually replace the CH-146 Griffon in the mid-2030s.
“We want to position the Chinook to be complementary with nTACS to provide a fulsome set of tactical aviation capabilities as we move forward,” explained Morris.
This won’t be a typical upgrade. As with many RCAF procurement projects, DAR 9 aims to inject capability more strategically over time, rather than in one massive, complex midlife program.
The F-model Chinooks first entered service in 2013, and the intent is to deal with issues before having to “go through that up and down cycle,” said Morris. “Rather, we want to maintain a higher level of capability by more frequently injecting upgrades into the fleet over its lifecycle.”
The RCAF is in the early stages of drafting a capability roadmap for the CH-147F — an outline of the needed improvements and when they should be installed. But the parallel work on nTACS, and tactical aviation more generally, will also dictate how the Chinook “needs to evolve,” acknowledged Morris.
“I think what we’re envisioning is a capability roadmap that goes from where we are today, to where we want to be as nTACS comes on board,” he continued. The idea is to look ahead “in a more detailed way as to how we might be able to achieve that, rather than waiting until the late 2020s/early 2030s and [trying] to do all those upgrades in one fell swoop.”
Though the RCAF will steer the nTACS and Chinook projects, the broader requirements are being driven by the Canadian Army and Special Operations Forces (SOF), both of which rely on tactical aviation for air support and mobility.
“We’re starting to have that conversation with both,” said Morris.
The fleet of 15 Chinooks is already in high demand for operations and exercises. Forward aeromedical evacuation is now a standard part of the training regime, and SOF is seeking more opportunities to work with the CH-147F. Adding new mission kits would require further crew training.
Morris noted that dealing with some obsolescence issues in the midblock upgrade could ensure faster turnaround to “support all the entities requesting [450 Squadron] services. That’s really the biggest challenge with that fleet.”
As part of the project, the RCAF is reviewing lessons learned from eight years of CH-147F operations — sometimes in austere environments — to identify “areas from a sustainment point of view that are causing us some issues,” he said. “Maybe there are things that we can change on the aircraft that will allow us to more effectively manage the fleet, [such as] avionics to more easily facilitate software support.”
One additional area of consideration for the helicopter will be expanded range, especially as it relates to projection into the Arctic. The Air Force is finalizing a contract with Boeing for extended range fuel systems (ERFS) – roll on, roll off gas tanks that can be placed in northern locations as forward air refueling points for Chinooks, Griffons, or other aircraft such as the CC-138 Twin Otter.
The RCAF Chinooks are plumbed for air-to-air refueling, but are not equipped with booms.
“That’s always a capability that we could develop in the future,” acknowledged Morris. “It would have a minor impact in terms of the cost for purchasing some hardware. But again, the biggest impact would be the training for generating the crews that have the skillsets to be able to do that.”