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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Eight-year odyssey to buy battlefield helicopters comes to an end

PETAWAWA, Ont. - New military helicopters that were ordered eight years ago to fill an urgent need over the battlefields of Kandahar have finally all been delivered — three years after the end of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson was on hand today as the last of 15 Chinook helicopters touched down at its home base in Garrison Petawawa, Ont., about 170 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

The choppers were initially ordered in the summer of 2006 by one of Nicholson's predecessors, Gordon O'Connor, as the army was being further drawn into a nasty guerilla war with the Taliban.

The helicopters were considered essential to keep soldiers off the bomb-sown roads of Kandahar province.

The Harper government made them the subject of a sole-source contract with U.S. defence giant Boeing, but getting them through the air force and defence bureaucracy proved to be frustrating.

It took a recommendation from the Manley commission to force the purchase of six older, used CH-47Ds for use in Afghanistan at a cost of $292 million — helicopters that were eventually junked after the war.

The entire program — both acquisition and long-term support — cost $5 billion in total.

As part of the industrial offsets, Boeing has committed to spend $2.95-billion in Canada.

Despite the delays and setbacks, Nicholson said the occasion was cause for celebration.

"The delivery of the 15th and final Chinook helicopter demonstrates our government's strong commitment to providing our men and women in uniform with the right equipment to perform their jobs," he said in a statement.

"The Canadian Chinook F-model — designed especially for Canada's demanding operational and environmental requirements — will provide increased mobility and flexibility to the Royal Canadian Air Force as they protect Canadians, and Canadian interests, at home and abroad."

The air force did fly Chinooks for decades, but they were sold off to the Dutch in the early 1990s by the Mulroney government in a cost-cutting exercise that was part of its so-called peace dividend at the end of the Cold War.

Ironically, Canadian troops hitched rides on those same helicopters in Afghanistan before they got their own.

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