OTTAWA — After more than 10 years of delay, Canada is moving forward with its purchase of new search-and-rescue aircraft in a competition that could attract bids from European and US aerospace firms.

Lockheed Martin, Alenia and Airbus are expected to respond to the request for bids for the CAN 3.1 billion dollar (US $2.9 billion) program.

The new planes will replace the Royal Canadian Air Force's 40-year-old Buffalo aircraft and older model C-130s currently assigned to search-and-rescue duties.

Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesman for Public Works, the government department that oversees defense procurement, said companies have until Sept. 28 to submit their bids. After that, the Canadian government expects a six-month evaluation period for the proposals, he added.

"A delivery schedule of the new fleet will only be finalized once proposals have been received and the successful bid presented to government," he said.

Industry sources say they believe the winning bidder will be announced by mid-2016.

The RCAF has not outlined when the first aircraft would be delivered. However, the government noted in its Defence Acquisition Guide 2015, published May 28, that it expects all aircraft for the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft (FWSAR) program will be delivered by 2023.

Alenia will bid on FWSAR, offering Canada its C-27J aircraft, while Airbus is planning to put in its bid based on its C-295 plane.

Alenia Aermacchi North America has brought together a team that includes IMP Aerospace, Halifax, Nova Scotia; General Dynamics Canada, Ottawa; DRS Technologies, Ottawa; and Kelowna Flightcraft, Kelowna, British Columbia.

Steve Lucas, a former lieutenant general who headed the Canadian Air Force and is now an adviser with Alenia, said the firm is currently working on putting together its bid. "We think we've got a lot of things going for us," he explained. "We think we've got as good if not a better shot than anybody."

Airbus Defence and Space has teamed with Provincial Aerospace, St. John's, Newfoundland; Pratt & Whitney Canada, Longueuil, Quebec; CAE, Montreal; Vector Aerospace, Richmond, British Columbia; and L-3 WESCAM, Burlington, Ontario.

Previously, Lockheed Martin officials noted that the firm was interested in offering Canada the C-130J for search-and-rescue duties.

Asked whether the firm will bid, Edward Arner, international director of business development for Lockheed Martin, said the company does not comment on an active competitive tender.

Other previously interested firms, however, have decided not to pursue the FWSAR project. Viking Air of Sidney, British Columbia, had proposed that it build new production DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft for the RCAF. But company officials said they would not move ahead on that option.

Boeing spokesman Scott Day confirmed that the Boeing-Bell V-22 Osprey would not be offered as a FWSAR candidate. Boeing and Bell had for the last several years tried to interest Canada in the V-22 for its search-and-rescue needs, but military officers have questioned whether the aircraft would be too expensive for Canada.

The FWSAR project is divided into a contract for the acquisition of the aircraft and another contract for 20 years of in-service support.

FWSAR originally envisioned acquiring 17 aircraft. But that has now changed.

Pablo Molina, head of Airbus Defence and Space (Military Aircraft) Canada, said the request for bids notes that it will be up to the companies to determine how many of their aircraft would be needed to provide Canada with the capability it has outlined.

"It is a capability based procurement," he explained. "It is for every company to decide the fleet size."

Public Works Minister Diane Finley highlighted the FWSAR project to industry representatives at the CANSEC 2015 defense equipment exhibit May 28 as an example of the government's efforts to move ahead with military procurements in the coming months.

Industry representatives noted that FWSAR is one of the oldest equipment projects still on the RCAF's books.

The Canadian government originally announced its intent in the spring of 2004 to buy a fleet of new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft but the effort has been foundering ever since.

At one point, a contract was supposed to be awarded in 2009 but that didn't happen. A new schedule called for bids to be placed in 2013 but that process was not followed.

The FWSAR project 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 firms and Airbus that the RCAF favored Alenia's C-27J aircraft for FWSAR.

In December 2008, Defence Minister Peter MacKay tried to fast-track the project but again that quickly derailed amid similar favoritism allegations made in the House of Commons and among industry.

Alan Williams, the Department of National Defence's former assistant deputy minister for materiel, earlier had testified before a parliamentary committee that the Canadian Air Force had designed the requirements for the original search-and-rescue aircraft project to favor the C-27J.

The RCAF has denied that allegation.


David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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