Search and Rescue needs rescue

Canada needs new fixed-wing search-and-rescue (FWSAR) aircraft.

The Department of National Defence has long had a “fixed-wing search and rescue” (FWSAR) procurement project on its to-do list, but the FWSAR project has been locked in a laborious and scandal-plagued bureaucratic tug of war that for years has prevented acquisition of the planes, which, unlike the F-35, will actually save lives (Murray Brewster, “Search plane replacement vexes Tories, as more industry consultations announced,” Canadian Press, 10 March 2012):

National Defence was close to getting a green light from cabinet to buy new fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes three times since 2007, but the $3.1-billion plan has been shot down by objections from other departments, say senior defence sources.

Frustration among senior defence and military officials over the Conservative government’s inability to move forward with the project to replace nearly 50-year-old C-115 Buffalos and three-decade-old C-130-H Hercules transports was palpable Friday.

Potential bidders were informed this week that a formal tender call has been put off until next year, raising questions about whether the continued delays could potentially cost lives.

The Buffalos reach their end of their service life in less than three years and face severe parts shortages.

Much of the delay can be traced to DND’s tendency to decide on the equipment it wants to buy and then ensure that its preferred choice is picked in the subsequent “competition” (assuming it deigns to hold one). In the case of the FWSAR project, it was clear early on that the air force wanted the C-27J Spartan as the replacement, despite the fact that it is seen by many experts as inappropriate for the search-and-rescue role in Canada (Michael Byers, “We need a big yellow plane that can hang from the sky,” National Post, 13 March 2012):

One cause for delay was that defence officials wanted just one model of search-and-rescue plane for the entire country, a model that could do much more than just search and rescue. Specifically, they wanted the Italian-made C-27J Spartan, which uses the same engines and systems as the new Hercules planes they had already bought to support combat operations.

The Spartan is large enough to carry NATO standard cargo pallets, yet small enough to operate on extremely short runways — such as at forward operating bases in Afghanistan where even the mighty Hercules cannot land. Defence officials were also attracted by the fact that the Spartan had already been chosen by the U.S. military as its “joint cargo aircraft.” The planes thus offered the gold standard of Canadian defence procurement, namely interoperability with the United States.

And so defence officials drew the procurement specifications very narrowly, so as to exclude all other aircraft. They did so despite the fact that the Spartan has a minimum speed of 194 km/hr, which is too fast to fulfill the essential spotting function on Canada’s West Coast.

Fortunately, the narrow and exclusionary character of the specifications prompted the Treasury Board to deny permission for an untendered process. An arms-length review by the National Research Council (NRC) was ordered. Among its many recommendations, the NRC called for a mixed fleet of slower and cheaper planes, augmented by a few smaller, faster, longer-range aircraft to provide search-and-rescue in remote regions, such as the Arctic.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has terminated the C-27J Spartan procurement in the United States, and with it the interoperability argument in favour of Canada acquiring those planes.

Byers, a member of the Rideau Institute board, suggests an innovative solution: buy made-in-Canada Buffalos:

The good news is that the Canadian government now has one last chance to solve the immediate problem: By quickly replacing the Buffalos with low-cost, Canadian-made planes that can fly ultra slow. The obvious option is to replace old Buffalos with new Buffalos. Victoria-based Viking Air has purchased the designs for the early line of “de Havilland” aircraft and is already building and selling new Twin Otters. …

Unfortunately, Canada’s recent procurement record suggests that defence officials will miss this last chance for a quick and easy fix; that they’ll continue to press for overly complex and expensive planes. And somewhere on Canada’s rugged West Coast, people will be put at risk — for the lack of a big yellow plane that can hang from the sky.

Photo Credit: DND

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