VICTORIA, British Columbia - A Canadian military program to buy a fleet of fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft is expected to be put before the government by May for approval after six years of delays and failed attempts to get the project under way.
The 3.1 billion Canadian dollar ($2.9 billion) program, originally announced in spring 2004 as a priority procurement but foundering ever since, would see the purchase of as many as 17 new aircraft.
The program had been sidelined by more urgent purchases of equipment for Canada's Afghanistan mission, as well as complaints made in the House of Commons and by domestic aerospace firms that the Canadian Air Force favored the C-27J aircraft, built by Alenia Aeronautica, an Italian company.
The program was restarted last July, when the government solicited submissions from the aerospace industry on its views of the aircraft procurement.
Defence Department spokeswoman Lianne LeBel said those submissions have been reviewed, and representatives from the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project office and other federal departments involved in the procurement are putting together a recommendation for the government on how to proceed.
In addition, the government has asked one of its science agencies, the National Research Council in Ottawa, to examine the military's search-and-rescue needs and how such capabilities could be improved. That review is due March 5.
"A recommendation to government on a proposed solution to acquire FWSAR is planned for spring 2010," LeBel said.
She did not provide a more specific date.
Once launched, the program is expected to attract bids from Alenia, with its C-27J; Airbus Military, a European company, with its C-295; Canada's Bombardier, with the Q400; and another Canadian company, Viking Air, which is looking to offer new production DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft.
The new FWSAR aircraft would replace both the Buffalo and the C-130 Hercules.
"Right now, everybody is waiting for the results of the 'third-party review,'" said Marcello Cianciaruso, Alenia North America's senior vice president for Canadian programs, referring to the National Research Council report.
Martin Sefzig, director of Canadian programs for Airbus Military, said his company is ready to bid on the program, as it has been for years.
"We submitted our very comprehensive letter of interest last year, and we're looking forward to government's way ahead," he said.
Because the Canadian government has not indicated how it will proceed with a long-term in-service support contract for the aircraft it eventually selects, Airbus Military has not made any teaming arrangements with domestic firms for that aspect, Sefzig said.
"We have good relations with all the players, but we haven't signed anything because we don't know how government will proceed," he added.
Originally, the Air Force said it wanted to purchase as many as 17 planes, but it did not get into specific numbers during the meeting with industry representatives last July.
Canada is looking for an aircraft that can conduct search-and-rescue maneuvers equivalent to those currently performed, as well as being able to fly from one of four existing bases to conduct a search for a minimum of an hour before returning to an airfield, according to a 14-page PowerPoint presentation by Public Works and Government Services Canada, made to industry officials.
In addition, the aircraft must have a cargo compartment of sufficient height and width to allow search-and-rescue technicians to perform all necessary tasks, and cockpit visibility to allow crew members to safely conduct maneuvers, the presentation noted.
But some aerospace industry sources believe that even when recommendations are made about the procurement in the spring, the Canadian government will not move that quickly.
They point out that in early 2008, the Canadian Forces announced it would be flying the current fleet of Buffalo search-and-rescue aircraft until 2014 or 2015.
In addition, the arrival this summer of new C-130J Hercules transport planes from Lockheed Martin will free up some of the Air Force's older-model Hercules for search-and-rescue duty.
"There's no pressure on the government to move on this program," said one industry source.
The FWSAR program has created political headaches for the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Last year, Viking Air launched an extensive lobbying campaign, writing members of Parliament to question why the Defence Department was interested in purchasing the C-27J when its Canadian-made plane could be available.
Alan Williams, the Defence Department's former assistant deputy minister for materiel, also had earlier testified before a Parliamentary committee that the Air Force had designed the requirements for the search-and-rescue aircraft program to favor the C-27J.
But Defence Minister Peter MacKay and the Air Force denied that. And last March, Lt. Gen. Angus Watt, then the Air Force's commander, took the unusual step of publicly complaining that the service was getting "beat up" by industry representatives and lobbyists making claims that the proposed competition was rigged.