Title: Ramping up the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft program

Sub-title: The recent helicopter crash in Newfoundland has highlighted the importance of search and rescue aircraft, as well as the delays in upgrading this key capability.


The fact that Canada needs to modernize its fixed wing search and rescue fleet has long been clear to almost all defence sector observers. This requirement, first confirmed officially in the government`s Canada First Defence Policy, was recently further highlighted in the wake of a Transportation Safety Board briefing regarding the crash of a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter in late March and in comments by Chief of the Air Force Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt.  Defence department officials have also confirmed the need to upgrade this key capability.


Yet despite growing urgency regarding the acquisition of the 17 aircraft thought to be needed, foot-dragging and bureaucratic sluggishness have left many industry insiders baffled about when and where the government wants to go. “It is no secret that FWSAR continuously runs into roadblocks,” said one industry expert familiar with the issue. “The statement of requirements went through several iterations and might well be now at version five or six at least. Yet no version has ever been made public.”


Foot dragging on defence sector procurement of course is no big surprise. Tight budgets mean tough choices, which no official is ever too keen to make. Furthermore, these types of initiatives are inherently complex. For example to move ahead with the FWSAR purchase, defence department officials need to get approval from three bureaucratic interests: Industry Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada and the federal cabinet, each of which want input in the process.


The case for FWSAR…now

It should come as no surprise that among the biggest boosters of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft initiative are the industry officials whose companies have the best chances of landing the contracts. Martin Sefzig, director of Canadian programs, at EADS, maker of the Airbus, is one of them.  The company’s CASA subsidiary has incorporated  a number of innovative design and technological capabilities into its C-295 model, currently being produced in Seville Spain, which Sefzig believes make it a good fit to meet Canadian needs.

“We have close to one hundred of these aircraft flying with 23 operators that are based in 15 countries who are using them for search and rescue operations. We believe that they could also be tailored to meet Canada’s needs too.”


Furthermore, the time to act is now, says Sefzig. “The aging Buffalo aircraft that are conducting SAR operations on the west coast are among the oldest in the fleet. They did their job well. But it`s time to upgrade,” continued Sefzig. “Furthermore, the transport aircraft that also perform search and rescue operations seem far too large for the task at hand, its almost overkill.”


Marcello Cianciaruso, vice-president at Alenia Canada agrees. “From an efficiency standpoint alone, upgrading our capabilities would yield significant advantages. For example we could drastically reduce our cost per flight hour,” says Cianciaruso. “Furthermore, the demands that will be placed on search and rescue aircraft during the coming years, such as those stemming from Canada’s heightening interest in the Arctic, will be far different than they have been in the past.”


Emerging roles for FWSAR aircraft

Cianciaruso believes that Alenia is particularly well positioned to help meet Canada’s FWSAR needs. This subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanica Group currently has orders in its books from the United States defence department for 200 C-27J Spartan multi-mission aircraft, a model that Marello Cianciaruso believes could be ideally tailored to meet Canada’s search and rescue needs.


“It is an excellent aircraft, that has the speed and range of the C-130 as well as the manoeuvrability of the Buffalo,” says Cianciaruso. “The plane can take off and land from virtually anywhere and offers excellent visibility from the cockpit.” In fact the C-27J’s advantages appear to many to be so conclusive that some believe that DND has in fact preselected the C-27J, and is setting up purchase criteria with it in mind.


That said, Cianciaruso`s opinions regarding the urgency of near-term FWSAR solutions aren`t entirely altruistic. That`s because the multi-mission aircraft the company is selling to the United States will be made there, and Cianciaruso believes that attractive offset work from those contracts could be given to Canadian companies, as part of an overall offset arrangement. In-service support could then be supplied by a Canadian partner. “We have sent out requests for information to possible Canadian suppliers,” says Cianciaruso. “The only challenge is timing. If we don’t act now, much of the most attractive sub-contract work will be given out and some Canadian companies could get left out.”


Made in Canada solutions?

Wait a minute says Rob Mauracher, of Viking Air Limited. If other aircraft boast having the speed and manoeuvrability of the Buffalo, why settle for an imitation, why not just go for the real thing? In fact the Victoria B.C. based company is also actively pursuing the FWSAR program, by partnering with a number of other players to offer what they describe as a “made in Canada solution.”


The proposal, which company officials claim will create between 300 and 400 new jobs, as well as 2,000 indirect jobs, would involve designing and manufacturing an enhanced and modernized Buffalo, which would include new engines, an upgraded avionics suite and glass cockpit. While Viking has yet to announce its formal partners, the company claims to have talked to or have relationships with Pratt & Whitney Canada, Field Aviation, Thales, Honeywell, Cascades Aerospace and many others.


One thing the group brings to the table immediately is credibility. Six of the CF’s existing Buffalos used by the 442 squadron based in Comox, which were initially bought from De Havilland in 1967, continue even today to provide a key backbone of the country’s capabilities in this area.


Another possible made in Canada solution comes from long time aerospace industry powerhouse Bombardier Aerospace which markets several aircraft that could form part of an integrated FWSAR offering, notably its Q series (formerly the Dash-8). The company has been hit hard by the current economic downturn and has been forced to make massive layoffs, many of them at its Canadian operations. These multi-mission aircraft, equipped with maritime search radar and electro-optical sensors would be in large part assembled in Canada, which would make some sense during a time of economic hardship.


FWSAR: time for a new partnership with industry?

Another intriguing possibility hovering on the horizon relates to opportunities to use the FWSAR initiative as a platform from which to help build the CF’s capabilities in terms of partnering closer with industry. In fact although some CF officials are said to have been less than satisfied with certain outsourcing experiences in the past, sub-contracting search and rescue capabilities makes some sense.


Furthermore, judging from the experiences of the U.S. armed forces, outsourcing, particularly assignments of a non-combat nature, is the wave of the future. For example major U.S. giants such as Halliburton and EDS Electronic Data Systems, increasingly perform tasks that soldiers find burdensome or which get in the way of them doing their jobs, ranging from running IT Systems, to preparing cafeteria foods.


Here in Canada, the armed forces took a major positive step in 2005 when it awarded a $93.9 million training contract to Top Aces, which was founded by three former CF pilots. In fact, according to spokesperson Garry Venman, the company may be primed to help out even more. “If the Air Force ever put out feelers looking for an integrated SAR solution, we would be willing to step up to the plate,” said Venman.  “Other countries such as the U.S., Australia and Spain already run non-military government agency SAR services and many more run fully civilian SAR operations.”


One added advantage says Venman: the retention of good people. “A variety of CF officers have stated repeatedly that signing on the best staff is increasingly challenging,” says Venman. “What you’ll find is that among the first employees that sub-contractors often attract is ex-military folk. Sub-contracting thus enables modern militaries to hold on to many of their best people long after they have retired.”


A tough choice

In fact all of the attractive options that defence officials have to choose from probably serve to make the FWSAR dossier even harder to finalize than it would be, if there were only one or two front runners. Making the job even thornier is the fact that the FWSAR project`s draft statement of requirements (SOR) are treated as confidential, and thus information is apparently not being shared equally between departments. (Defence department officials did not respond to requests for interviews).


This on top of the fact that, as usual with defence sector procurement, there are a host of competing agendas on the table, ranging from which aircraft can best do the job, to which proposal would generate the best potential spin-off benefits or offsets for Canadian businesses, all at a time of economic uncertainty and tighter budgets, with a minority government in place, may mean that the best we can hope for right now is to stay tuned.


Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is Canadian Defence Review’s Quebec correspondent.



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