Procurement: A long Search for FWSAR
RICHARD BRAY
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 5)

Does the Long-delayed Purchase Represent a New Opportunity?
In the last 10 years, Canada has seen a major combat engagement in Afghanistan; four elections and one majority government; the departure of two prime ministers; and, amid some successes, numerous struggling defence procurements. Throughout it all, the government has been trying to replace its Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) fleet of aging Buffalo and Hercules aircraft.
 
The bureaucratic environment in which the procurement will take place has changed radically over that time. Budgets and head counts have gone down, and accountability for defence purchasing has remained elusive. Along with other difficult and troubled acquisitions, FWSAR now has its own secretariat. Nominally housed within Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), it is almost certainly under close scrutiny from the political machine. And the political context has changed as well.
 
New ministers now have responsibility for the defence acquisition file – Rob Nicholson at Defence, James Moore at Industry, and Diane Finley at PWGSC – while the doomed post of Associate Minister of National Defence for procurement has (not surprisingly) vanished.


Photo: Sgt Blair Mehan

The purchase of a new Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue fleet could be a public relations win for the Royal Canadian Air Force. A strong statement that the present procurement system is capable of achieving results would go a long way towards taking some pressure off the Harper government in time for the next election (sometime before October, 2015).
 
When a new Request for Proposal to acquire search aircraft is released, possibly this fall or winter, it will ­undoubtedly reflect and attempt to deflect many of the criticisms that have been aimed at the project since its inception. Most notably, the National Research Council’s 2010 report on the project determined that the first Statement of Requirements was “over-constrained.” And it had much more to say.
 
The NRC team wrote that “Stated mission scenarios, preservation of the status quo regarding standby posture, CF crewing, and the four existing main operating bases may limit the potential number of solutions industry could propose.”
 
Rather than living up to the ‘fair and transparent’ mantra that the government repeats ad nauseum, the previous SOR came dangerously close to dictating the winner. In fact, the report was widely interpreted as validating the criticisms that had been swirling for years – that the specifications were written for the Alenia C-27J.
 
For years, as those troubles continued to ebb and flow, that aircraft and the Airbus C295 had been considered by most pundits as the only serious contenders for the FWSAR role. However, when the Air Force tried to sole-source the C-27J under an Advance Contract Award Notice, the ensuing outcry blew the competition wide open. Today, the V-22 Osprey, the Lockheed Martin C-130J and a modernized version of the current CC-115 Buffalo have all joined the previous contenders in the quest to provide aerial search capability.
 
The National Research Council mandate did not look beyond the aerial search role, and to date, the FWSAR procurement process does not appear to have considered alternative uses for the selected aircraft.
 
All of the proposed candidates for the FWSAR project are essentially military transport aircraft, capable of meeting different requirements. If they were not strictly dedicated to the SAR role, they could be used to move cargo and people within their assigned areas, train pilots and crew and perform aerial surveillance. In the Canadian Military Journal, Jim Dorschner wrote, “Even with more than 1000 SAR missions flown annually by the CF, the total capacity of available assets is heavily underutilized. Dedicated FWSAR aircraft can and should be available to perform surveillance and other support missions without risking SAR coverage.”


CC-115 Buffalo aircraft prepare to depart the Prince Rupert Airport for the Canada-U.S. Search and Rescue exercise (SAREX), off the coast of Prince Rupert, B.C. (Photo: Cpl Jennifer Chiasson, 19 Wing Comox)
 
The FWSAR procurement and accompanying service contracts are worth billions of dollars, and the three major contenders have locked in their teaming arrangements for the bid. Lockheed Martin and Cascade Aerospace Inc. have a memorandum of understanding to support the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. With 17 Super Hercs already in the RCAF inventory for the transport role, additional aircraft would offer economies of scale in parts and training.
 
Standing behind the C-27J are manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi, General Dynamics Canada, and DRS Technologies Canada Ltd. The aircraft has the speed, range and agility to carry out Canadian SAR missions. It was and may still remain the preferred choice of the RCAF. With similar engines and avionics, it offers a great deal of commonality with the C-130J.
 
Airbus Military has teamed with Pratt & Whitney Canada, CAE, L-3 Wescam and Vector Aerospace, but its agreement with Discovery Air Defence Services, a company with a substantial northern presence may be most critical to its chances. If the fixed-wing SAR aircraft must operate from bases in southern Canada, only the C-27J and the CC-130J aircraft have the speed and range to complete the mission within current time parameters established by the Air Force. Basing some aircraft in the north puts the C295 in the running but only if it can operate ­economically. As Discovery president Paul Bouchard said, “We believe the RCAF can increase the level of service to Canadians by reducing response times in a region of Canada that is increasing in terms of activity and importance.”
 
In 2012, the government said any change to the existing bases “must account for all associated costs, including infrastructure.” Northern operations are expensive, but investing in FWSAR locations like Yellowknife and Iqaluit might put some substance behind the government’s proclaimed desire to establish a larger presence in the north. More importantly, it would reduce response times substantially. When First Air 6560 crashed near Resolute Bay in August 2011, killing 12 and injuring three people, elements of the Canadian military were already there, preparing to exercise its ability to deal with a major air disaster. Without that presence, military rescue aircraft would have taken hours to reach the scene. After analyzing the incident, Stephen Priestley of the Canadian American Strategic Review website wrote, “The take-home is clear. Only pre-positioning of CF SAR assets in the North can avoid lengthy delays in response times. The status quo of basing aircraft in the South is putting lives at risk.”
 
Search and rescue is a high-profile, flagship mission for the Royal Canadian Air Force and a core responsibility of the federal ­government. The FWSAR acquisition is an opportunity to finally demonstrate competence after a mixed record.
 
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Richard Bray, Senior Writer, FrontLine.
© FrontLine Magazines 2013

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