For the past decade, Canada has tried to replace is CC-115 Buffalo, pictured, and C-130 Hercules search-and-rescue aircraft. (Canadian Forces)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The Royal Canadian Air Force has jettisoned years of work on the purchase of a new fixed-wing search-and-rescue (FWSAR) aircraft fleet, but insists it will be ready in the coming months to accept proposals from bidders.
The Canadian Forces has been working on the procurement since 2004, making it one of the longest-running equipment programs underway in Canada.
But the military has come up with new requirements for the CAN $3 billion (US $2.7 billion) program, making years of previous work moot.
Industry will be required to determine the number of search-and-rescue bases that the country will need, an unusual move, according to industry officials and opposition members of Parliament, since private companies aren’t normally tasked with deciding where aircraft are based.
“Upon approval of the project, the procurement strategy changed from a platform-based procurement to a capability-based procurement in which industry will be required to propose the type of aircraft, the number of aircraft and the number of bases required to meet the level of service,” military spokesman Capt. Alexandre Munoz said.
The government scrapped the old requirements due to repeated allegations that they favored Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J aircraft.
The release date of the final request for proposals (RfP) and other timelines of the project are unclear.
Munoz said “details pertaining to the FWSAR project schedule, including timelines for delivery, will be finalized and released in the RfP in the coming months.”
Industry has, however, seen a draft RfP.
Once fully underway, the program is expected to attract bids from Alenia, Airbus Military with its C-295, and Viking Air of Sidney, B.C., initially at least, with its rebuilt Buffalo aircraft. And Lockheed is interested in offering Canada the C-130J.
Jack Harris, defense critic for the official opposition New Democratic Party, said it doesn’t make sense to force industry to determine where search-and-rescue bases should be located.
“It’s pretty hard for them to bid based on that, particularly when there are fixed costs for bases involved that industry has no control over,” Harris said. “It’s a strange decision.”
Harris said it is unclear what would be done if one of the bidders suggested the establishment of a base where one doesn’t exist. Canada operates search-and-rescue aircraft from five bases across the country.
Liberal Party defense critic Joyce Murray said the decision to abandon more than eight years of research is a reflection of the high level of problems facing the procurement.
“It’s a huge waste of time and resources,” she said. “I think there is a level of incompetence in the government.”
Defense Minister Rob Nicholson has not addressed the ongoing problems with FWSAR. But he has noted a number of what he called successes in procurement, including the purchases of C-17 transport planes, C-130J Hercules planes and used Leopard tanks.
“We are making a commitment to our armed forces to get them the very best equipment, and that will continue under this government,” he said.
Some in industry also question the basing requirement.
“We’re in uncharted territory on some of this,” an official with Airbus Military said.
He said the company is waiting to see details about the basing aspect, as well as other issues, once the final request for proposals is issued.
But the company said it is disappointed the project has been hit by more delays.
“We were hoping to move forward on this,” the official added.
Dominique Spragg, vice president of strategic planning for Viking Air, said the company is waiting to see the final RfP before commenting.
Stephanie Stinn, a spokeswoman at Lockheed, said the company’s C-130J has the speed, range and payload to meet the draft requirements already released, and it can perform that task from three or four bases.
“Lockheed Martin believes that any new FWSAR aircraft and associated basing concept should be at least equal to and ideally better than Canada’s current solution — including the ability to perform extended searches as needed, sometimes for hours on end, from any of the main operating bases,” she wrote in an email.
Alenia Aermacchi North America did not comment.
The FWSAR aircraft would replace both the Buffalo and the C-130 Hercules. At one point, the program envisioned the purchase of 17 aircraft, but the Air Force has not detailed how many planes it currently wants to acquire.
The program was sidelined over the years by more urgent purchases of equipment for Canada’s Afghanistan mission, as well as complaints made in the House of Commons by domestic aerospace companies and Airbus Military that the Air Force favored Alenia’s C-27J for the FWSAR contract.
In December 2008, then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay tried to fast-track the project, but that effort quickly derailed amid similar favoritism allegations made in the House of Commons and among industry players.
Alan Williams, the Defence Department’s former assistant deputy minister for materiel, testified before a parliamentary committee that the Air Force had designed the requirements for the original search-and-rescue aircraft program to favor the C-27J.
The Air Force has denied that allegation. ■