FWSAR – Is it Back on Track?
May 15, 2014

Those who have followed the FWSAR project over the last decade, know it can be divided into two phases – pre and post 2010 National Research Council (NRC) Report. Are recent criticisms by Opposition members justified, or uninformed?

Between 2003 (when then Defence ­Minister McCallum announced FWSAR replacement as a priority) and 2009, the program requirements had been refined to the point that only one platform could fulfill all of the “mandatory” requirements. Widespread concerns over the defensibility of the program are blamed for delay after delay and eventually led to an “Industry Day” in 2009. Following its own “fair and transparent” mandate, the Government finally stepped in to address complaints from industry and, in an unforeseen move, appointed a respected team of flight researchers from the NRC to review the Statement of Operational Requirements. Malcolm Imray, Tim Leslie, Paul Kissmann, Jocelyn Keillor, Robert Erdos, and Dany Paraschivoiu examined and challenged the stated objectives and requirements of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue project over a period of approximately one year.

In a concise and understated manner, their report concluded that the SOR was “over-constrained.”

According to government sources, DND quickly revised its SOR (it has not been released), and there have been numerous amendments to Letters of Interest (LOI) since then.

Liberal defense critic Joyce Murray has recently jumped into the fray to denounce the decision to restart the program, saying it is abandoning more than eight years of research, and calling it a “huge waste of time and resources”. Although she correctly described the situation as “a reflection of the high level of problems facing the procurement process,” she must be oblivious to the pre-2010 history of the program (possibly thanks to PWGSC deleting all of that messy period from their posted FWSAR timeline).

The years of effort that are cited as having been “lost” in the evolution of the FWSAR program are those years prior to the NRC report. Informed observers would argue that the early focus was on trying to work the system, as opposed to working within it, so this lost effort is a positive aspect. The FWSAR program is a definite contender for the poster child of why procurement reform is necessary.

The flaw in the legacy procurement model was the lack of outside challenge and oversight. This led to some interesting requirements, including a fixation on ­aircraft speed and cabin height, a total dismissal of the value of sensors and a mission system, plus a disregard for off-the-shelf solutions that were being used by SAR forces around the world.

The Air Force placed highest priority on arrival time. A lower priority was the search component (the lack of sensor requirement was baffling even back then). The sensor (search) requirement will undoubtedly be a much higher priority in the revised SOR. The rescue component was not a factor in 2004, and seems to remain an afterthought. Rescue, most often by the much slower helicopter, is considered to be outside the FWSAR equation. This myopia has led to complaints that SAR in cold climates stands for Search And Recovery due to the high risk of dying from exposure while waiting to be picked up. In fact, I’m surprised the Department of Renaming Everything in Sight hasn’t already renamed it the FWS program to avoid perceived public conflict regarding a “Rescue” component. Apparently cost is the reason Canada will not combine the Search AND Rescue in one procurement package, but one wonders if all factors of the entire process – from call to hospital – have ever been calculated and compared. Can a single platform provide the flexibility required for a country with the vast distances, ­geographic complexities and fluctuating weather extremes that Canadian SAR Techs have to deal with? Apparently no one likes that question.

A Sea Change
Looking at the progression of the procurement process, the decision to initiate an unfettered challenge function, as well as the conclusions reached by the NRC team, were pivotal in that it caused a sea change in the FWSAR project itself, but more importantly these actions set in motion a chain of events that has led to the current defence procurement reform.

Allowed to examine and challenge the mandatory requirements, the NRC team noted that any search platform should include myriad new sensor technologies. Old-school assertions such as “the best sensor is a human eyeball” have also been dashed by the current Commander of the Air Force. LGen Blondin told FrontLine last year that although he wouldn’t do without the Mark1 eyeball (visual inspection), he would utilize all the technological options available for search success such as radar, night vision, infrared, and other sensor equipment. “Everything is about sensors,” he said. And so, FWSAR requirements have been dragged into the 21st century.

The NRC report also called attention to the fact that the FWSAR aircraft requirements stated the replacement platform must be able to provide a level of service “equal to current levels”. A vague requirement at best, this statement had gone unquestioned for years. The NRC team deemed it important to mention that nowhere in Government of Canada Policy is that level of service defined, so what exactly does the requirement mean? Given the RCAF priorities, could it could refer to response speed?

An innovative computer program was prepared by the operational research mathematicians at DND a few years ago. By entering aircraft speed, unrefueled range, fueling time, and proposed bases, it compares response time to the more than 3,000 real SAR incidents in the Canadian SAR area of responsibility that Herc and Buffalo aircraft responded to in recent years. The Real Incident database provides a baseline to compare the relative performance of any aircraft to current performance. Some factors, such as weather have to be zeroed out as neutral in this analysis, and it only evaluates performance relative to the status quo. It is only one tool in the evaluation process, many other important factors must be ­evaluated, such as the ability to respond to any incident in the SAR sector within a 14-hour crew day, unit cost, fuel requirements, maintenance and basing costs. A proposal could use different bases that are closer to incidents and therefore able to respond to accidents more quickly and stay longer. A separate part of the RFP will deal with the costs related to basing.

The NRC report is fascinating reading. Along with its final conclusion of “over-constrained” requirements, the report ­recommended that the procurement be capability-based instead of platform-based. It noted that much of the substantiation for requirements did not live up to close scrutiny. For example, there is no “standard SAR load”, in fact, the team found that SAR Techs do not deploy or use equipment as stated in the outdated SOR. Requirements that were eliminated as a result of close examination in the light of day, included such aircraft-specific items as transit airspeed, cabin height, and cockpit window configuration.

A lack of substantiation within the SOR also resulted in the elimination of specific fleet numbers and basing. Deletion of the requirement to base FWSAR assets in their current locations has received much scrutiny of late, however, the reason for this change was likely drawn from a 2005 DND Research paper that concluded the current basing was suboptimal. This paper may have influenced NRC’s recommendation that the SOR have some flexibility to investigate basing options.

The NRC team validated the Air Force requirement of a ramp (for increased safety when dropping of Rescue personnel and equipment), and recommended additional mandatories such as: full integration of search sensors; an ability to operate from short gravel runways and austere airfields; and the ability to operate in icing conditions. It is hard to fault those additions.

Not all the NRC recommendations have been accepted. Despite repeated reassurances that commercial off-the-shelf solutions (COTS) would be sought, leaked information suggests the current project contains more than 700 mandatory and over 140 rated requirements. Insiders contend that some of the original inconsistencies raised by the NRC still remain, and that extensive modifications of COTS systems are still being demanded (aka the so-called “Canadianization” that surreptitiously ratchets up price and complexity levels under the radar). Perhaps a follow-up check prior to Cabinet submission would assess where the guidance was followed and substantiate the reasons where it wasn’t. Bottom line? Closer supervision is needed in order to keep things on track and to avoid “years of wasted effort”.

While it is true that the NRC Report resulted in many of the requirements being subsequently redrafted, the reason was clear – they did not stand up to scrutiny. Although in its infancy, and with numerous iterations yet to come, the ongoing Procurement reforms should avoid this type of situation in future. Much as the NRC report critically analyzed the FWSAR program, future defence programs will see Third Party Review panels that will challenge High Level Mandatory Capability requirements before they become enshrined in an SOR. In the case of FWSAR, it could have saved years of effort and delays (and deprived critics of media attention).

The project’s second life really began in 2011 when a new LOI was released and a project office was formed and staffed. Encouragingly, an RFP is expected in the near future. However, for a requirement that was identified in 2002, announced in 2003, and “fast-tracked” by then PM Paul Martin in 2004, one “near future” could be a relative term. That said, real progress has been made and potential vendors are clearly optimistic that the RFP will materialize. According to Public Works, the following vendors have responded to the LOI and are now officially on the Source List: Airbus Defense and Space (C-295); Alenia Aermacchi (C-27J); Bell Boeing (V-22); Embraer Defense and Security (KC-390); and ­Lockheed Martin (C-130J). The ducks are lining up, let’s see if the government can lead this to completion.

Chris MacLean, Editor-in-Chief
Read the NRC Report at this link: www.forces.gc.ca/assets/FORCES_Internet/docs/en/about-reports-pubs/FWSAR_EN.pdf
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