VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada plans to select a new fleet of search-and-rescue aircraft by the end of the year, wrapping up what has become one of the longest defense procurements in the country's history.

The (CAN) $3 billion ($2.3 billion) project, started in 2004, is expected to be a battle between two European planes, the C-27J aircraft from Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica) and the C-295 from Airbus Defense and Space.

Embraer of Brazil has also bid the KC-390.

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.

Canadian government officials say they expect the contract to be awarded by the end of 2016.

Steve Lucas, a former head of the RCAF and now an advisor to Leonardo, said the announcement of the winning bidder could come slightly early, perhaps sometime in the fall.

Leonardo has unveiled its plan to establish a search-and-rescue training center in Comox, British Columbia, if it is selected as the winning bidder.

"The training centre to be built will be a three-storey facility, with around 72,000 square feet of space and will house training classrooms, flight simulators, mission simulators, maintenance simulators and a training hangar to house a full-scale C-27J maintenance training aircraft platform," Lucas explained.

Airbus also says it will locate a training facility in Comox if it wins the contract. "For us, it's a logical location for it, as there's ready access to a variety of environments where SAR crews operate, including over the ocean, in the mountains and the North," said Michael Powell, an Airbus spokesman.

The Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft project is divided into a contract for the acquisition of the aircraft and another contract for 20 years of in-service support.

The RCAF expects all aircraft for the FWSAR program to be delivered by 2023.

The FWSAR project originally envisioned acquiring 17 aircraft. But that has now changed and will be capability based, say government officials. The aerospace firms submitted in their bids the numbers of aircraft they believe are needed for Canada to handle the needed search-and-rescue capability.

Lucas said the Canadian government has asked companies not to reveal details at this time about the number of planes presented in their bids.

In the bids, the firms were required to submit prices and aircraft numbers for a fleet to operate out of four main existing bases across Canada. Information was also requested for having planes operating from three bases.

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 has been on and off ever since.

The FWSAR project was sidelined over the years by more urgent buys 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 the C-27J aircraft.

The RCAF has strenuously denied any preference for an aircraft.

Embraer announced late last year that it was entering the FWSAR competition with its KC-390 jet aircraft.

The KC-390 conducted its first flight in February 2015, but the aircraft is not expected to enter into service until early 2018.

However, Geraldo Gomes, vice president of business development for Embraer Defense and Security, has said the firm doesn't see that as a problem, noting the company would be able to meet any Canadian delivery timelines.

Embraer has not released any details about Canadian aerospace partners on its bid, while Leonardo and Airbus have lined up key domestic firms as part of their offer packages.

Judy Foote, the minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, has pointed out that providing quality work to Canadian firms is a key part of any firm being successfully selected to provide Canada with defense equipment.

Testing of the three aircraft is finished, according to Canadian military sources. The evaluation of bids is ongoing but government officials say they don't expect any delays in the process.


David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

More In Farnborough