Fixed Wing SAR
Jul 15, 2012

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s hopes of having new fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft in service by 2015 received a boost, of sorts, in mid-July when Public Works & Government Services Canada (PWGSC) released a Letter of Interest to potential suppliers. In the notice on its MERX website, PWGSC said it would begin “sharing elements” of a draft Request for Proposals “this summer” as a prelude to an industry workshop that has been tentatively scheduled for October 17-19.

From the outset of the program – originally budgeted at some $3 billion for capital acquisition and in-service support for up to 19 aircraft (a number that may yet be cut by government spending constraints) the front-runners have been two high-wing twin-engine turboprops – similar in basic concept to the 1960s-era deHavilland CC-115 Buffalos they would replace. Those are the C-295, built in Spain by a ­subsidiary of EADS Airbus Military, and the C-27J Spartan built in Italy by Alenia Aeronautica, a division of the Finmeccanica conglomerate. The Spartan initially seemed to be headed for a sole-source contract, but delays in the procurement machinery helped to keep the C-295 in contention.

Unique Contender
There is one other aircraft that could meet the program’s requirement for a rear ramp, and that is the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor from Bell-Boeing. Unit costs will undoubtedly be higher than conventional fixed-wing challengers, but program spokesman Bob Carrese insists there are obvious economies to having one aircraft capable of doing both the “search” and the “rescue” parts of the mission. No longer would it be necessary to send one aircraft to search and drop supplies and/or a SAR Technician and then send a helicopter (or land- or sea-based resources) to effect the rescue.

“We do meet all of the essential elements with this platform as a fixed-wing airplane but we also bring the ‘option’, if you will, for a SAR team to actually make the rescue,” the former Air Force One pilot says. “Right now they just do search and assist, search in orbit – someone else actually has to ‘close the deal’. So, if you look at the search and rescue mission in its totality, we believe we can provide a better, more ­efficient service to ­Canadians by reducing the number of assets required, in most cases reducing the total cost of the mission and the total risk.”

Carrese concedes that some missions might still require a SAR Tech to parachute from the V-22 rear ramp, as they do now from the half a dozen Buffalos still in service on the West Coast, and from SAR-tasked Hercules C-130s. However, “in a lot of cases you could actually stop and make the rescue and get the patient to a hospital in a fraction of a time you would now.”

Bell-Boeing stepped up its campaign at CANSEC 2012, displaying a fitted-out fuselage with the starboard side painted in Canadian SAR colours. “We think this is a good candidate… because speed is life and because the Canadian area of responsibility is huge,” Carrese says, noting that the Canadian government has been talking about doing the FWSAR mission “differently” this time.

Even though Osprey unit costs will be higher than the fixed-wing contenders, the economies from using a single platform are self-evident, possibly saving what Carresse says could be “hundreds of millions of dollars” over the life of the overall SAR program.
Although the V-22 has the ability to tilt its rotors into helicopter mode for landings and take-offs, it operates in fixed-wing mode most of the time and can fly faster than helicopters, shortening the transit time to a rescue area. This offers what Carrese justifiably describes as a “unique” capability. “We already perform search and rescue missions,” he said.

Prospects for the V-22 have improved due to the delays in the FWSAR program, which enabled the Osprey to mature operationally, and Carrese welcomes the fact that the procurement seems to be back in gear after a series of stutter-starts more than seven years after it was proposed.

The requirement has become ever more urgent due to the fact that Buffalo fleet maintenance costs have mushroomed to $20 million annually – which has prompted the government to take them out of service by 2016.

V-22 Development
The team of Bell Helicopter and Boeing Helicopters was awarded a development contract by the U.S. Government in 1983. Flight testing and design alterations of the first military tilt-rotor in the world led to many years of development budget overruns and political opposition. Two prototypes crashed in 1991 and flights didn’t resumed until 1993 after design and safety improvements were incorporated. Two more fatal crashes in 2000 grounded the aircraft for a full investigation which resulted in additional changes being made. The U.S. Marine Corps eventually fielded the Osprey in 2007, and the USAF in 2009. It has been deployed in both combat and rescue operations over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In February 2012, Marine Commandant General Jim Amos told reporters in DC that the MV-22 Osprey is now “the safest airplane, or close to the safest airplane” in the Marine Corps inventory.

The initial requirement, estimated at $3 billion, was for 17-19 aircraft, but that could change depending on whether DND opts for a single platform, a mixed fleet, or even “alternate service delivery”, which could involve the private sector. “You could probably say there’s some room for number reductions,” Carrese agreed.

He also points out that V-22 operating costs have reduced over the past couple of years as mission availability has increased and “the trend is still going in the right direction.” Also, Bell-Boeing is pursuing a second multi-year U.S. Marine Corps contract which could work to Canada’s advantage in that, as more aircraft are built, unit costs should drop. “There is an opportunity there,” he says.

Bell-Boeing is in the fourth year of its first multi-year production run, with roughly three aircraft a month coming off the Bell assembly line in Amarillo, Texas, through to late 2014. “We’ve been on schedule and below cost ever since 2007 on this aircraft. This is actually recognized as one of the healthier programs in DOD (U.S. Department of Defense) now, in regards to production.”

The second multi-year proposal, which has been endorsed by Congress, would deliver 98 aircraft. “We’re confident that we’re going to be able to generate the required savings,” Carrese says. “That provides us an opportunity now to make more aircraft available to new customers, both domestic and international.”

Still Facing Headwinds
Just count the problems facing the FWSAR program: False start; Fast-tracked; Delays; Industry days; Fairness monitors; Detailed evaluation of the requirement by the National Research Council; Consultations with potential bidders; More delays; a Public Works Secretariat... the RCAF’s relatively small FWSAR project now resembles much larger acquisitions like the fighter jet and the vehicle replacement programs.

In a previous iteration, it was no secret that the C-295 was being unofficially rejected by project staff in favour of its main rival, the C-27J. That seemingly insurmountable roadblock was relentlessly challenged, and the C-295 is now competing on an expanded and seemingly level playing field. It also helps that since its 2001 launch, C-295s have been sold to Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Finland, Jordan, Poland, Portugal and Spain – logging more than 40,000 flight hours in SAR, tactical airlift and maritime patrol missions.

The new process and bureaucracy at play in Ottawa are intended to increase fairness and transparency, but they add complexity, as Airbus Military President Domingo Ureña-Raso acknowledged recently. “Yes, it is very complex, but there is no simple business today,” he said at AM headquarters in Madrid. “I think, in the bidding requirements from the government, there are many areas to be covered. It gives an opportunity to show best value for the money they are going to spend, so we are very happy to have the opportunity to compete.”

Sgt Stephane Clavette (442 Transport & Rescue Sqn) drops a rescue bundle from the ramp of the CC-115 Buffalo aircraft for a search and rescue training scenario during Op Nunalivut 2012.

Defining “best value” could be critical for Airbus Military’s chances. The company believes it can compete on versatility, capability and cost. At a time of rising expectations and shrinking budgets, many governments want to reassign aircraft to multiple roles. Airbus has sold more than 100 C-295 aircraft to 16 operators, attesting to the fact that flexibility – such as its range, military and VIP transport, fire-fighting and anti-piracy capabilities – is a key factor. Gustavo Garcia Miranda, Airbus Military’s Vice-President of Market Development, said that “many operators have C-295s in transport and mission roles because the mission systems can be put in and out of the aircraft in such a way that you can use the aircraft to carry cargo one day and fly missions the next day.”

But those advantages may not have any impact on Canada’s decision. The fact that the C-295 can deliver 70 paratroopers over the C-27J’s 42, or five standard pallets instead of three, may not be relevant if it is not written into the SAR Request For Proposal.

April 2012 – WO Dan Lamoureux (442 Transport & Rescue Sqn, 19 Wing Comox) briefs pilots and SAR Technicians on the situation and objective for a SAR training scenario in ­Resolute Bay during Operation Nunalivut 2012.

Lower total cost of ownership may be a different matter. “Because the C-295 is a much lighter aircraft than the C-27J, the fuel consumption is practically half,” Miranda said. “Here we are talking of 2600 horsepower instead of 5000.” In a presentation to reporters, Airbus cited U.S. Air Force data that shows C-27J life-cycle costs as similar to those of the C-130J, which is the backbone of the Royal Canadian Air force’s tactical lift capacity.
For better or worse, Airbus Military must build its case for the C-295 on issues such as best value for money and total cost of ownership because it is slower than both the C-130J and the C-27J. While it is an advantage for the actual search function, it is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the time it takes to arrive at the scene – the winning aircraft may be required to work within a crew day of 15 hours. If the demonstrably lower C-295 purchase price and operating costs mean an operator can afford a northern basing strategy to reduce the crew day and increase a northern presence, it could be a significant factor.

Airbus Military does have C-295s operating in a SAR role. “In the Search and Rescue role we have aircraft in Spain, in Mexico, the United States, Ireland, Portugal and Chile, so it’s a well-proven machine, not just in acquisition costs, but in operating costs,” Miranda said.
Airbus will no doubt make its own case to Canada. In Australia, where it lost out to Alenia in the Battlefield Airlifter acquisition, the company slammed the C-27J by pointing out, among other things, “the risks involved in operating an aircraft that, according to a US military report, is ‘not operationally suitable’ and did not achieve the desired reliability or mission availability rates when deployed to Afghanistan.”
Thunder Down Under
Earlier this year, Australia’s Defence Minister Warren Snowdon announced plans to buy 10 Alenia C-27Js to meet the Battlefield Airlifter requirements of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Airbus swiftly issued a statement calling into question the consistency of the procurement: “In a press conference immediately following the announcement, the Minister clearly stated that there had been a competition between the C-27J and the Airbus Military C-295 airlifter. Airbus Military is obliged to place on the public record our disappointment at the Minister’s choice of words, because there was no tender process and certainly no competition.”

The company wrote that Snowdon’s department had turned its back on its own evaluation process. “The Department of Defence stated publicly that holding a competition between the two [naval combat helicopter] contenders had resulted in a 25 percent savings in acquisition cost.” It also decried the choice of the C-27J as seemingly based “largely on the RAAF’s own desktop assessment, adding that when compared with other similarly-priced procurements, “this effort falls short of a full evaluation process.”

The Department of Defence defended its decision in a prepared statement, insisting that the C-295 had had a fair hearing. “An equal and same opportunity was given to both Airbus Military and Alenia,” it said, adding that it considered the C-27J a more suitable aircraft for the its requirement. “The C-27J flies higher, further, faster and can access more airfields in our area of interest.”

Some of the Australian selection criteria are arguably somewhat baffling. A case in point is a requirement that its airlifter accommodate the boxy Mercedes four-wheel-drive G­Wagen utility vehicle, which the C-295 simply can’t. The C-27J can – but only one model. Airbus continues to believe that its C-295 provides “much more value” than the C-27J, and publicly wonders why such an apparently marginal requirement drove the entire acquisition.

Australia has committed $1.4 billion for aircraft to be delivered in 2015. Airbus says it could begin delivery of its C-295 within six months and insisted that its offer of 10 C-295s at a capital acquisition cost of A$400 million would eventually yield savings of $1 billion compared with the C-27J. However, the Defence Department countered that “the costs quoted by Airbus Military refer only to the cost of aircraft and do not account for these essential additional costs.”

Even after Snowdon’s announcement, Airbus Military Senior Vice-President Antonio Rodriguez Barberan continued to insist that his company had a winner, apparently optimistic that a second look at the costs of in-service support could tilt the balance in favour of the C-295. “We were a fraction of the price.”

(April 2012) Sgt Guy Anctil, Canadian Ranger Instructor talks with his ranger patrol group in front a CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft during Operation Nunalivut 2012, in Resolute Bay, Nunavut – one of the major sovereignty operations conducted every year by the Canadian Forces in Canada’s North. (Photo: Corporal Jax Kennedy, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Operational Life
While a 30-year operational life is the currently-stated RAAF horizon, the challenge for Airbus Military, Alenia, Bell-Boeing or other prospective bidders for the Canadian FWSAR procurement could be even more formidable. Canada has a track record of pushing operational envelopes out to 50 years (the Buffalos and Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King maritime helicopters as well as some Canadian Coast Guard helicopters), and its “coast to coast to coast” approach gives it probably the largest SAR region in the world.
To be continued….

© FrontLine Defence 2012