VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian government has until mid-March to respond to claims by Leonardo that it — and not Airbus — should have won a multibillion-dollar program to supply the country with new search and rescue aircraft.

The Canadian government announced Dec. 8 that it would purchase 16 C295W aircraft from Airbus in a deal that could be worth up to CAN $4.7 billion (U.S. $3.6 billion). That figure includes the cost of long-term in-service support for the planes.

But Leonardo has filed a motion in federal court to overturn the contract to Airbus Defence and Space. It argues that its C-27J aircraft should be declared the winner of the program because it not only costs less but is a better aircraft for search and rescue missions in Canada.

Steve Lucas, a Canadian-based adviser for Leonardo, said the C-27J has superior range and performance over the C295W, particularly for operations in the Arctic. 

Nicolas Boucher, a spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department that handled the acquisition, said the Canadian government is committed to a fair and open procurement system. "A fairness monitor was engaged to oversee and report on the openness and transparency of the competitive procurement process, and reported no fairness issues," he explained. "As the case is before the courts, we will not comment further."

Airbus issued a statement noting that it would not comment on the ongoing legal battle. "The C295W is fully compliant with the requirements as set out by the government," spokesman Mike Powell said in the statement.

Airbus Defence and Space has teamed with key Canadian firms for the project. Those include PAL Aerospace for in-service support, Pratt & Whitney Canada for engines, CAE for training and simulation, and L-3 Wescam for the electro-optical sensors.

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.

Airbus will build a new training facility in Comox, British Columbia, to support the fixed-wing aircraft fleet.

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 purchase had been delayed over the years.

The project was sidelined 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 Air Force favored the C-27J aircraft for the fixed-wing search and rescue plane.

Airbus, Leonardo and Embraer of Brazil, which offered the KC-390 for the Canadian program, were the firms that bid on the project. In November, aerospace industry sources told Reuters that Embraer's KC-390 was not expected to win because the aircraft's program was in the development phase and Canada was seeking an aircraft that was already certified. From there, the competition came down to Airbus and Leonardo.