Canada is looking to buy new search-and-rescue planes to replace the six Buffalo and 13 CC-130s, similar to this one, that the Air Force now uses for such missions. A government report that criticizes the current search capability is expected to spur the effort. (Canadian Forces)
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VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Canadian government procurement specialists are scrambling to release a bid package to industry for a multibillion-dollar military search-and-rescue aircraft after a scathing report from the auditor general warned the nation’s search capability is at a breaking point.
The CAN $3.3 billion (US $3.2 billion) project to buy a new fleet of fixed-wing search-and-rescue (FWSAR) aircraft has been stalled for more than a decade. Work started in 2002, but procurement has been plagued by delays and controversy.
But industry sources said they expect the April 30 release of an embarrassing 39-page report, “Federal Search and Rescue Activities,” will force the Conservative Party government to try to gain lost ground on the procurement. The report, by Auditor General Michael Ferguson, found that the Royal Canadian Air Force does not have enough search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft to do the job, and that the ones it does have are so old they are less capable of responding to SAR incidents.
Training and air crew availability also have problems, and an information management system used by the Department of National Defence to manage SAR cases is inadequate and nearing its breaking point, the report determined.
The new FWSAR aircraft would replace six DHC-5 Buffalo and 13 CC-130 Hercules.
Ferguson focused on the troubled FWSAR procurement, warning that Canada’s Buffalo and Hercules aircraft are so old that it is difficult to find parts for the planes.
Ferguson noted that if the 45-year-old Buffalo aircraft are used beyond 2015, they might require new engines at a substantial cost. In 2011, Buffalo airplanes were unavailable for SAR on 119 occasions, he pointed out.
“We are very concerned about the sustainability of search-and-rescue services in coming years,” Ferguson told journalists at a news conference April 30.
After the release of the auditor’s report, Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed that a request for proposals for the FWSAR project will be released to industry in the fall. A contract is expected in 2014 or 2015 with aircraft deliveries in 2017.
MacKay found himself on the offensive in the House of Commons April 30 after the release of the report. The government, he said, agrees with its findings and is committed to improving the SAR system.
But New Democratic Party defense critic Jack Harris said the government’s “failure to replace the aging aircraft is dangerous.”
“Canadians need world-class search and rescue, but instead, the Conservatives are offering world-class mismanagement,” he said.
Ferguson’s audit report comes as other Canadian military aircraft procurements are also in trouble. The acquisition of a next-generation fighter aircraft has been restarted because of concerns over delays and increasing costs of the F-35s that Canada had committed to purchasing.
A project to replace Twin Otter aircraft for Arctic operations is stalled, and there is still no delivery date for the Cyclone maritime helicopter, which would also have secondary search-and- rescue duties.
Sikorsky was supposed to deliver the first of those naval helicopters in 2008, but that never happened and the $5.7 billion project is more than four years behind schedule.
The Cyclones are to replace the Sea King helicopters the Canadian Forces has been using since the 1960s. The DND will not say when the Cyclones are to be delivered.
Several companies have been waiting to bid on the FWSAR project. Airbus Military plans to offer its C-295 aircraft, while Alenia Aermacchi will bid the C-27J. Boeing/Textron is looking to sell Canada the V-22 Osprey for SAR duties, and Lockheed Martin plans to offer the C-130J. Viking Air of Sidney, British Columbia, has proposed a new-production DHC-5 Buffalo.
Much of the delay for FWSAR has been linked to concerns that Canada’s Air Force had designed the competition to favor a particular aircraft. In April 2004, Airbus Military officials complained publicly that the service was pushing for a sole-source purchase of Alenia’s C-27J.
Alan Williams, the DND’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, MacKay tried to fast-track the project, but that quickly derailed amid similar favoritism allegations made in the House of Commons and among industry.
Viking Air also launched an extensive lobbying campaign, writing members of Parliament to question why the DND wanted to select the C-27J aircraft that was going to be built at the time in the US, when a Canadian-made plane — its new-generation Buffalo — was potentially available.
The Air Force has denied that it favors the C-27J.