FWSAR Options
Jan 15, 2012

As 2011 rolled to a close, ostensibly knowledgeable insiders were suggesting that the long-stalled program to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s diminished fleet of deHavilland CC-115 Buffalo search and rescue aircraft had been given a new lease on life and that a request for proposals for new Fixed Wing Search and Rescue aircraft was imminent.

It turned out to be nothing more than year-end cocktail chatter. When FrontLine followed up, asking the Department of National Defence about the supposedly “impending” announcement, the response came instead from Public Works & Government Services Canada. “No decision has been made on the procurement strategy at this time,” it stated. “Once a decision has been made, the development of detailed requirements and tendering documents will begin. The RFP development will include Industry consultation. We will put in place an aggressive schedule to develop the RFP to ensure we meet this important requirement.”

Important? Arguably. Aggressive? Debatable. It’s been almost 65 years since DND assumed primary responsibility for federal SAR, and while it deploys other aircraft such as its Bell CH-147 Griffons and Lockheed-Martin C-130 Hercules on such missions, its dedicated SAR platforms are the AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant helicopter (which entered service in 2001) and its Buffalos (which date to the mid-1960s, originally as tactical transport aircraft, and retasked for SAR work in 1975).

September 2010 – Master Corporal Billy Ternes jumps out of a CC-115 Buffalo over Whitehorse, Yukon Territory during a Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) 10.

The Buffalo fleet is now down to six. All are at Canadian Forces Base Comox, in British Columbia, where 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron uses the aircraft’s fundamental ruggedness and short take-off and landing capability to good effect in mountainous terrain and offshore. Scheduled for retirement two decades ago, they now cost an estimated $20 million a year to maintain.

Last fall, Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed that keeping the “Buffs” operational would require new engines – he has also said there are no plans to keep them flying beyond 2015. In the meantime, the debate about the fixed-wing SAR replacements (possibly 15 to 17 at an estimated cost of $3 billion) continues to drag on nearly six years after the first Statement of Operational Requirement (SOR) was issued.

Accusations that the SOR had been written for a specific aircraft rather than for the mission, and the increasingly heated debate eventually forced PWGSC to ask the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory to review the SOR.

The NRC’s test pilots and engineers concluded that the old SOR effectively ­limited options by, among other things, specifying an “off the shelf” aircraft which might require extensive modifications. Nor did they like the SOR’s specification of an unrefueled range of 1,699 nautical miles, which they said was “inconsistent with the stated core objective of […] maintaining or improving the SAR level of service.”

Those and other criticisms prompted an overhaul of the SOR (including a meeting with industry representatives) that PWGSC said was intended to review “all options to ensure the best possible SAR service to Canadians and best value for taxpayers.”

So, the saga continues, and now, three additional options are on the table – remanu­factured Buffalos; more Hercules; and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor by Bell-Boeing.

Bruno Potvin, Contract Manager for FWSAR in the Defence & Major Projects Sector at PWGSC, also mentioned that the government was seeking industry opinions on “alternate service delivery” (ASD).

ASD, which could involve more than one aircraft type or even private-sector involvement, is seen as one way of keeping costs down as government moves to trim its deficit by having departments and agencies cut spending by 5 to 10 %. That opens up possibilities such as company-owned and operated ­aircraft, perhaps with one or two RCAF crewmembers, or possibly government-owned but privately-operated aircraft. PWGSC evidently has been flooded with ASD proposals since the meeting, however, it seems more likely that the Air Force will consider ASD for first line maintenance only. Putting such a critical service in the hands of a potentially unionized ground crew is a step the government may not be ready to take just yet.

New Aircraft
The main FWSAR contenders are still a pair of high-wing twin-engine turboprops: the C-295, built in Seville, Spain by a subsidiary of EADS Airbus Military; and the C-27J Spartan, built by Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica, a division of Finmeccanica.

The Spartan initially seemed headed for a sole-source contract, but the Seville-based C-295 builder doggedly kept its aircraft in ­contention, and over the years has established the highest direct Canadian content for the FWSAR Program, including Pratt & Whitney Canada engines.

A longstanding contender for Canada’s fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, the Alenia Aeronautica C-27J Spartan twin ­turboprop was procured by the U.S. Army and later transferred to the USAF for time-sensitive, short-haul, in-theatre missions. However, it may be cancelled mid-contract by the Department of Defense as part of its budget cutbacks. The 13 that have already been delivered (of 21 ordered) are to be flown to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base “boneyard” in Arizona for dry storage in recoverable condition in the event they might be needed again. Both the U.S. Army and Coast Guard are said to have expressed interest in taking over the 13 aircraft.

“The C-27J was developed and procured to provide a niche capability to directly support Army urgent needs in difficult environments such as Afghanistan, where we thought the C-130 might not be able to operate effectively,” the DoD said in a budget summary. “However, in practice, we did not experience the anticipated airfield constraints for C-130 operations in Afghanistan and expect these constraints to be marginal in future scenarios. Since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower, we no longer need nor can we afford a niche capability like the C-27J.”

September 2011 – Canadian and American Search and Rescue (SAR) Technicians prepare for a free fall parachute jump from a CC-130 Hercules over Summerside Airport during SAREX. 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron is comprised of approximately 200 personnel including aircrew, aircraft maintenance ­ personnel, as well as administrative support.

Buffalo Upgrades
British Columbia-based Viking Air Ltd. contends that incorporating new technologies into a “next generation” DHC-5NG (Buffalo) is a viable option. Nearly four years ago, Viking compared the DHC-5NG with the C-27J (which was developed from a 1962 design for the Fiat G.222), and determined it is effectively a contemporary to the Buffalo. While the J’s engine, ­propeller and flight deck equipment are Herc-based, the DHC-5NG would use the latest commercial technologies, including the engine/ propeller combination from the DHC-8 Q400.

Believing taxpayers will benefit from the “reliability, supportability, and reduced operations costs” of a commercial platform, President and CEO David Curtis says the DHC-5NG would feature an ­integrated avionics and technology enhance­ment package with Synthetic View, ­forward-looking infrared and night-vision goggle capabilities similar to those already being installed in the new Viking Series 400 Twin Otters. The company has received interest from governments around the world and looks at a growing demand for new production Buffalo aircraft. “By upgrading and modernizing the [CC-115] fleet and incorporating new-build Buffalo aircraft, manufactured and supported in Canada, the cost savings over the introduction of a completely new type is huge,” it says.

There is also the prospect of further expansion of the RCAF’s growing fleet of C-130s, the newest ones being J models which are winning high praise from aircrews and ground support personnel. The 17th and final aircraft from Lockheed-Martin’s facility in Marietta, Georgia, is expected at CFB Trenton this summer. Some wonder if the government would sole-source with Lockheed-Martin, as it did with the J order. After all, there are valid economic arguments for fleet commonality, a reduced need for spares inventory, and fleet-specific maintenance regimes.

Sergeant Bob Hervieux, 426 Search and Rescue Squadron, practicing rescue and static jump procedures.

Alternate Service Delivery
The C-130 option could involve other Canadian companies, such as Toronto-based Field Aviation Co. Inc., which is interested in both conventional and Alternate Service Delivery (ASD) possibilities for FWSAR. Field Aviation has decades of experience in long term support contracts, including several for the RCAF, but in the last 15 years, has become best known for developing and delivering surveillance and SAR platforms for international military and paramilitary customers. Most of these have been developed from the Dash 8 (30 delivered to date with another 4-6 expected to deliver in 2013), however they have developed surveillance solutions on everything from mainline business jets to Russian military helicopters. David Jensen, Vice-President (Business Development) believes his company is ideally positioned to provide modifications and in-country support to an OEM bid for a conventional product delivery scenario or to offer more extensive service options, if the RCAF chooses that route.

While the civilian operation of a Military-defined technical solution may create some cost savings, Jensen suggests “the greatest saving would be achieved if industry was allowed to explore and propose how it could best achieve the operational objectives of the program.”

The Australian Coastwatch Program, which many consider to be the international benchmark for successful ASD surveillance programs, specified the required operational performance but did not specify how bidders were to achieve it.

Jensen notes that the ASD option could mean that aircraft without a rear ramp (a key requirement, according to the RCAF) may be considered. He says that when Field Aviation got involved in Australia’s Coastwatch Program, it considered “the cheapest and best” options. The company looked at a range of craft – from Beechcraft King Airs to “bigger and faster [platforms] than Dash 8s”, and also jets. “It came down to a twin turboprop, carrying the biggest radar available, being the right answer – a Dash 8.”

Combination Option
Another option is the unique V-22. Bob Carrese, Executive Director of Business Development for Bell-Boeing, likes to point out that the Osprey, which had its maiden flight in June 1991, is the only potential FWSAR candidate capable of doing both Search and Recovery elements of the SAR mission. It blends the high-speed, long-range capabilities of a fixed-wing platform with the manœuvrability and vertical take-off and landing attributes of a helicopter. “Integrating an appropriate number of these exceptional and proven aircraft into the Canadian Forces rescue community maximizes the level of SAR service by ­dramatically reducing time to rescue while reducing total mission costs,” he says.

Unit cost could be an issue but the V-22 has shown its mettle in Afghanistan and other austere environments. After a rocky start that included several high-profile crashes, and some redesigns to address problems identified in investigations, nearly 160 units are now operational with the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force, and it has evolved into the preferred platform for many missions. “In addition to its unique performance attributes, the V-22 provides a cost-efficient solution in a time of financial constraints,” Carrese says. “Total mission costs include the allocated costs of many complementary elements in addition to direct operating costs of the platform itself. Tilt-rotor technology greatly reduces the need for many of the support structures and systems, providing a substantially lower mission cost when compared with legacy partnerships of today.” Also, the Osprey is capable of in-flight refuelling and evidently would be compatible with current Canadian tankers.

Still Waiting
Canadians watch impatiently to see if the Government can finally address its SAR aircraft requirement and make a decision on just what will do the best job.

Ken Pole is FrontLine’s Contributing Editor.
© FrontLine Defence 2012