VICTORIA, British Columbia — A multibillion-dollar project to buy new search-and-rescue aircraft for the Canadian military — once seen as a likely win for Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J Spartan — has turned into a full-fledged competition, attracting aircraft manufacturers from around the world.
The Canadian Forces has reversed its previous decision to operate only one type of aircraft for the new search-and-rescue fleet, opening up the 3 billion Canadian dollar ($3.06 billion) competition to new aircraft built in Canada, but also potentially to planes ranging from Lockheed Martin’s C-130J to Embraer’s KC-390.
Officials from Canada’s Viking Air, as well as Embraer, Lockheed, Boeing, Alenia Aermacchi and Airbus Military, attended an Oct. 17 meeting in Gatineau, Quebec, to hear an update from the government on the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft project.
Kim Tulipan, a spokeswoman for the procurement branch of the Department of National Defence, said that after an independent review of the project, “the requirement was changed from one being based on the platform to one that is based on capability. As a result, industry will be required to propose the type of aircraft or fleet mix and in what quantity of aircraft, and where they will be based.”
That change signals that the Royal Canadian Air Force has backed away from its insistence on purchasing only one fleet of aircraft, opening the door to a mixed fleet, aerospace industry officials said.
The change would allow for a smaller aircraft to be purchased for operations in the mountainous western coast of the country, as well as in the Great Lakes region, they said. A larger aircraft also could be bought to cover the eastern coast and other regions.
Rob Mauracher, Viking Air’s vice president of business development, said the change allows companies to join forces and offer a package of aircraft to Canada.
“Viking is having discussions with other aerospace companies and believes in a two-fleet solution,” he said.
Viking Air has proposed providing newly built DHC-5 Buffalo twin-engine planes, with the work being done in manufacturing facilities here and in Calgary, Alberta. The Buffalo is used by the Canadian Forces for fixed-wing search-and-rescue missions on the West Coast.
Mauracher noted that possible new bidders have come forward, adding that Embraer’s KC-390, a twin-engine jet-powered military transport plane under development, could go head-to-head with Lockheed’s C-130J, a four-engine turboprop.
Allowing for a two-fleet solution and potentially more competition also could spell trouble for Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J, a twin-engine cargo plane that has been seen as the aircraft favored in the past by Canada, said Steve Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank. Alenia Aermacchi is a subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanica industrial group.
In April 2004, Airbus Military officials complained publicly that the Canadian Air Force was pushing for a sole-source purchase of the C-27J. Alan Williams, the Defence Department’s former assistant deputy minister for materiel, later 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.
In December 2008, Defence Minister Peter MacKay tried to fast-track the project, but that quickly derailed amid similar allegations of favoritism made in the House of Commons and in industry.
Viking Air also launched an extensive lobbying campaign, writing to members of Parliament to question why the Defence Department wanted to select an aircraft that was going to be built at the time in the U.S., when a Canadian-built plane — its new-generation Buffalo — was potentially available.
The Air Force has denied that it favors the C-27J.
Embraer, the Brazilian aerospace giant, did not respond to a request for comment.
Lockheed declined comment, but an official noted that if it decided to bid, it would offer the C-130J, which the Canadian Air Force already operates.
Boeing officials said they are looking at bidding on the project with the V-22 Osprey. The Chicago-based company builds the tilt-rotor aircraft in partnership with Bell Helicopter, Fort Worth, Texas.
Alenia Aermacchi still intends to offer the C-27J, and in May, Alenia Aermacchi, Alenia Aermacchi North America, General Dynamics Canada, Provincial Aerospace and DRS Canada announced they would join forces for the FWSAR project. In September, the companies announced they would develop a Canadian-designed mission system for their aircraft proposal.
Airbus Military will bid the C-295, another twin-engine cargo plane. On Oct. 10, Airbus Military and Discovery Air of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, signed a memorandum of understanding. Discovery Air will become Airbus Military’s primary Canadian partner on the FWSAR project, handling in-service support if the companies win the competition.
The new FWSAR aircraft would replace the six Buffalo and 13 C-130 Hercules planes used in that role, Tulipan said. At one point, the Defence Department envisioned purchasing 17 aircraft, but it has not detailed how many planes it wants to acquire. That will be up to the companies.
“The government is currently developing the request for proposal documentation and is consulting with industry throughout the development process,” Tulipan said.
Mauracher said companies are expecting a request for proposals in March, with bids to be in late in 2013 or early 2014.