Title: Bombardier’s surprising strengths
Sub-title: Known primarily for its business, commercial and amphibious offerings, this leading aerospace company also manufactures special mission aircraft, which position it as a major defence sector player.
Recent months have been tough for Canadian manufacturers. Tight credit and shrinking demand have forced many to slash payrolls and to buckle down. However one high technology player, Bombardier Aerospace, has fared far better than most.
“These are exiting times for us,” says Derek Gilmore, the company’s vice-president (specialized aircraft solutions). “While we have been hit by the current slowdown, we continue to benefit from a broad and well-diversified product line and a large order backlog. Just as important though, the purchasing cycle for our aircraft, because of their complexity and sophistication, is much longer than it is for many commoditized products. That means we are less affected by shorter term economic fluctuations.”
Gilmore has a point. In fact there are few greater examples of the long-term product planning cycles that characterize Bombardier’s business, than those that affect its defence sector initiatives. As a result, while many companies are responding tactically, to current economic fluctuations, Bombardier also continues to think strategically.
Special mission aircraft
Bombardier watchers often think of the company as primarily as a business, commercial and amphibious aircraft manufacturer. But Canada’s leading aerospace company also markets special mission aircraft, many of which have defence applications. These include Maritime Patrol, Flight Inspection, Medevac, Search and Rescue and High Altitude Surveillance platforms. “We have more than 330 special mission aircraft deployed in more than 35 countries around the world, which perform a variety of roles,” says Gilmore proudly.
Bombardier also offers head of state, ministerial, governmental and military transportation solutions to a broad range of countries including Australia, Canada, the United States and several others. That niche has quietly taken on increased importance in recent years, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began with wide ranging air strikes aimed at its then-president Saddam Hussein. At the time, the American government justified the bombings on the grounds that Hussein was also commander and chief of Iraq’s armed forces. While unsuccessful, the American assassination attempt set an international precedent which quietly opened the door for similar strikes against heads of state in future conflicts (including against American presidents who are by definition armed forces commander in chiefs). This somewhat unforeseen development has forced defence sector players to attach increased importance head of state travel security.
Canadian Multi-Mission Aircraft program
In short, Bombardier’s defence sector niche has long remained somewhat under the radar. However according to Gilmore, the increasing noise surrounding Canada’s Multi-Mission Aircraft program means that this quiet is unlikely to continue. Details remain sketchy as to what roles these new aircraft are expected to perform. However according to defence department officials, the Canadian Armed Forces long–term plans involve replacing the Aurora maritime patrol plane with a multi-mission aircraft that will provide fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. Between 10 and 12 new aircraft will be needed by 2020. In addition, DND will also be needing search and rescue aircraft even sooner than that.
“People are realizing that they can take a high performance commercial airframe, modify it by installing special radar, antennas and other devices, and then profit from a custom made solution,” says the seasoned executive, noting that Britain’s Royal Air Force is already using up to five Global Expresses, equipped with Ratheon radar in surveillance operation in Afghanistan.
However Gilmore and David Jurkowski, Bombardier’s vice-president (government relations and sales support, specialized and amphibious aircraft) will need to work hard to spread their ideas. That’s because while the Canadian Armed Forces’ 2020 target date may seem far away, it will take a lot of leg-work to integrate the systems the new platforms will likely be expected to carry.
“This is the first time that Canada has ever undertaken anything of this magnitude,” says Jurkowski. “The CMA will be extremely complex, because you are dealing with a whole new series of requirements, equipment and specifications For example Canada’s growing focus on its Northern region has increased the real estate that needs to be patrolled by two-fold. Furthermore, the new multi-mission aircraft will need to have built in features that enable them to communicate with fighters, UAVs and ground forces.”
Bombardier: A major aerospace sector player
They say that experienced salesmen never try too hard to sell any particularly product. The best marketers “sell” themselves, because they know that if they can inspire confidence in clients, the rest is easy. That lesson appears to have permeated deep into the mindset of Bombardier’s key employees, almost all of whom can list the company’s lengthy list of accomplishments almost by rote.
That’s good news, because many of Bombardier’s investments on the civilian side of the business, notably those in the LearJet, Challenger and Global families, position it well to leverage that value into defence applications. In fact, the company’s success has been nothing short of awe inspiring. As of early 2008, it had 60,000 highly skilled employees on its payroll and had billed $17.5 billion for the fiscal year ended January 31,2008, more than half of that from aerospace sales.
Bombardier Aerospace also recently introduced a variety of game changing technologies, including the Learjet 85, the GlobalVision flight deck and the Q400 NextGen. Furthermore, the recently unveiled CRJ NextGen family of regional jets offer substantial cost improvements, more space and increased use of composite material than previous versions. There is no better sign of the company’s widespread international acceptance than the fact that fully 96 percent of its revenues during that fiscal year came from outside of Canada.
The Global Express as a defence platform
According to Jurkowski, Bombardier’s Global express has numerous features that position it well for the multi-mission aircraft program, particularly for Arctic patrol applications. “To conduct airborne surveillance, you need speed, reach and persistence,” says Jurkowski. “The Global Express offers all three. With that platform, a pilot could take off say from Greenwood Nova Scotia, stay and loiter in the air for 10 hours 500 miles offshore. In addition, it can land in a lot of places and is well tested.”
In fact, according to Jurkowski, the Global Express has several features that are almost ideally tailored for what will likely be its proposed mission. “It has a modern glass cockpit and a heads-up display, as well as an enhanced vision system, which includes infra-red sensors, which allow the pilot to see where he is going when flying through clouds.”
Q-400, a prestigious pedigree and a bright future
Another Bombardier aircraft that is used to conduct maritime patrol operations in several countries is its Q-series. “This aircraft has a great pedigree,” says Jurkowski. “It comes from the family of Dash-8s, of which there are more than 1,000 manufactured and furthermore, the series has recently been upgraded.”
The Q-400 has several features that make it extremely useful for conducting maritime patrol and anti-submarine operations, says Jurkowski. These include its 360 nautical mile per hour top speed, coupled with the fact that the aircraft boasts a 67 foot cabin flat floor length, the longest of any currently produced turbo-prop and its stingy use of fuel.
One particularly useful innovation that Bombardier has introduced is certain noise cancellation capability. “Normally a turbo-prop is noisy, but not the Q-400,” says Jurkowski proudly. “Quietness is key, because it you are on a plane looking at sensors for ten hours, operational efficiency will be substantially increased when the crew are operating in the best possible conditions.” The Q-400’s quietness also somewhat increases its deployable range, because of the reduced disturbance the craft make when they land in residential neighbourhoods.” So far there have been 322 orders for the Q-400, of which 219 have already been delivered.
A Canadian solution
Of course, as with all discussions regarding Canadian Armed Forces procurements, the elephant in the room remains the benefits of producing equipment in-country, both from a national security perspective, as well as from the economic spin-off benefits such contracts usually bring. However as important as these are Burkowski, seemed more focused on the intrinsic value that Bombardier aircraft provide. “These planes are highly reliable,” says the retired Canadian Air Force fighter pilot. “The US FAA uses Bombardier aircraft and clearly if they are good enough for them, Canada should look at them too.”
Sidebar: Case study: Can Canada learn from Sweden’s maritime surveillance challenges?
Few countries have the combined long coastlines and hard weather Arctic climate that Canada does. However Sweden comes close. So when the central Scandinavian country recently picked up three Dash 8 Q300 MSA turboprops aircraft, the move provided a strong signal that when Canada ultimately decides its next initiatives, Bombardier may prove to be a big winner.
The three Q300s, which will be based at the Skvaqsta airport, in Nykoping and operated by the Swedish Coast Guard, will have a plateful of demands made upon them. They will be missionized for maritime surveillance. Their round-the clock missions will include reconnaissance of natural and man-made disasters such as maritime accidents or oil spills. The turboprops, the first of which entered into service in May of last year, will also participate in life-saving missions, monitor maritime traffic and sustainable fishing practices, as well as ensure border controls.
According to Derek Gilmore vice-president (specialized aircraft solutions) at Bombardier, Swedish officials highlighted several of the Q-300’s features that caught their attention. “Because of their challenging geography, they needed and aircraft that offered a greater range, higher performance and superior onboard capabilities,” said Gilmore. “The were also very impressed by how quiet the planes were, which is not surprising, because when crew work long days in aircraft, keeping them comfortable is a crucial step in getting top performance from them.”
Peter Diekmeyer (email@example.com) is Canadian Defence Review’s Quebec correspondent.
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