Military v Civilian Search and Rescue
DOUG SMITH
© 2019 FrontLine Security (Vol 14, No 1)

Search and Rescue (SAR) has always been an emotional topic because it deals with lives – most will be saved, but some will be lost. Is a contracted service in the best interests of the SAR mandate?

In early December 2018, the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans released a report based on their review of Maritime SAR in Canada. Interestingly, the committee focused on an area that caught many Canadians by surprise – the privatization of some SAR services in Newfoundland and in the North.


Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter from 417 SAR Sqn based in Cold Lake, Alberta, conducts operations while providing assistance to the province during wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta in May 2016. (Photo: MCpl Brandon O'Connell, 3 CDN DIV PA)

This conversation stirred waters that had remained clear and calm for decades. Back in 1947, the Government entrusted the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) with the SAR mandate. Administered by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), its SAR resources are used in a number of ways to relieve suffering and assist Canadians in emergencies, the largest proportion of their use relates to the primary mission of providing SAR service to the aviation and marine communities.

Back in 2016, as reported by Canadian Press correspondent Lee Berthiaume, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stated that “search and rescue won’t be privatized”. Furthermore, the current Defence Policy, entitled “Strong Secure and Engaged (SSE), acknowledges this position by naming SAR as a core mission of the CAF. More recently, a 2018 Earnscliffe Strategy Group poll on Canadian views, expectations and knowledge of the CAF showed that “the widest consensus over what roles the CAF should play is found around non-combat missions.” Significantly, SAR was considered “important” by more than 90% of those surveyed.

In its argument to privatize SAR delivery, the Senate report notes that Ireland and the UK have successfully switched their helicopter SAR services from military to civilian – but deeper research shows that both countries made the move out of necessity rather than as a capability issue.

The UK and Ireland decisions to go civilian were anchored in a 2009 assessment that “helicopter capability is being seriously undermined by the shortage of helicopters” and an inability to come up with the financing required for replacing aging SAR helicopter fleets. Additionally, the UK was faced with a helicopter pilot shortage due to its demanding engagement in Afghanistan of the day. Closing down their SAR capability made more personnel available for deployment.

Sweden’s experience, however, serves as a cautionary reminder that privatization of such a core responsibility can prove treacherous for governments. Back in 2002, Sweden made the decision to hand over its helicopter SAR responsibility to the commercial provider Norrlandsflyg. Nine years into the contract, the commercial provider experienced financial troubles and Sweden had to buy the company with public funds and transfer SAR back to the Government to ensure service continuity.

The Senate Committee’s so-called “international fact-finding missions” seem to focus only on the bright side of civilian SAR and its cost savings, and neglect to mention its main problem: reliability.


Irish Coast Guard helicopter performs hoist operation with lifeboat RNLI William Gordon Burr on exercise in Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland. (Jim Crawford JAC Photography.co.uk)

Case in point: In January 2018, the Irish Coast Guard SAR helicopter service was on the brink of coming to a halt due to a pilot strike. As reported by John Mulligan of the Irish Times: the pilots’ union stated that CHC had failed to meet its contract obligation with regards to staffing levels, which leads to overworked employees. The issues are still ongoing, a strike by the aircrew union is again looming as we go to press with this article.

Civilian SAR helicopter providers are also not sheltered from market volatility. Most companies, like CHC, Cougar and Bristow, depend largely on the oil market through their main income sources of oil platform transport services.

As Cougar Helicopters testified to the Senate Committee’s 2016 Study on Maritime Search and Rescue activities (page 5:38), “The challenge for us is that […] our assets are 100 per cent contracted to the oil and gas company. In order to conduct a civilian or a tasking from JRCC, I must get release of those assets from the oil companies.”

In the UK, we find that Bristow Helicopters has been in a financial crisis since 2015 with its stock prices plummeting in value (due, in part, to multiple legal action related to irregular financial reporting). Bristow recently declared to their shareholders that its “ability to continue its business is a growing concern”.

While the impact of financial difficulties on the UK SAR contract is yet to be seen, it is of critical important to recognize that for companies providing SAR services, exposure to market pressures is a reality check that the Senate Committee was not taken into consideration when proposing its Alternative Service Delivery solutions.

Personnel is also a key factor in the military vs civilian question. It ultimately comes down to the visions of each entity. The military motto “Train hard, fight easy” ensures that a tremendous amount of time is spent honing appropriate skills. But such a training regime is costly, and cannot be matched by civilian operators whose focus must be on its own financial viability.

A civilian service provides just the right amount of training to deliver the contracted capability safely. This economic focus does not enable them to replicate the level of competency that the military, with all its resources, brings to the table.

It requires tremendous resources to train military pilots. Interestingly, civilian outfits often hire ex-military pilots with solid SAR experience because of their high level of training. In fact, 85% of Cougar Helicopters’ SAR aircrew are ex-military, and approximately the same percentage of CHC SAR personnel also have military SAR background. If the UK decides to cut its military SAR forces, the pool of trained ex-military will someday be depleted – meaning the training bill for contractors will increase dramatically or the level of competency will go down.


In 2018, CHC Helicopters signed a 30-month contract continuation with the Royal Australian Air Force to provide search and rescue services at five bases around Australia. Six new Leonardo AW139 aircraft replaced the service’s previous Sikorsky S-76 fleet. These SAR-configured aircraft have four-axis auto hover, allowing them to hover over water at night. The crews will also use white phosphorus night-vision technology. The Australian Navy has been operating a fleet of AW139 aircraft since 2017. (CHC Helicopter AW139 – Royal Australian Air Force)

Response Times

The Senate Subcommittee’s criticisms of the current military SAR service can be summarized in two elements; a lack of Arctic presence; and a reaction time not on par with more populated areas.

In the case of aerial SAR, “reaction time” is defined as the time between when a SAR aircraft is tasked and when the resource departs for the tasking.

The Senate Committee has argued that private companies have a quicker response time, and this is indeed a fact. For example, Cougar Helicopters’ stated  window for SAR coverage of oil platforms is 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. Conversely, DND has a 30 minute (RP30) day response and 2 hour (RP2) window at night. However, they take off as soon as possible in every case, and stats show that CAF SAR crews are usually airborne in around 20 minutes on RP30 and one hour on RP2.

Concerns over the RCAF’s so-called “two-tier reaction time” are somewhat baffling, as such a reaction time is a reality across most of the international helicopter SAR providers. Private companies, like CHC (Ireland SAR contract) and Bristow (UK SAR contract), also have different response times for day and night launches. They both have 15-minute day response and 45-minute night response windows specified in their Coast Guard contracts.

The allowance for a three-fold increase in response time at night compared to daytime reflects the basic additional time required for night crews to regain the cognitive skills necessary to process information and enable conscious decision-making after awakening.

Clearly, DND needs to find solutions to improve response time at night. When it comes to rescue, every minute does count and, in an ideal world, Canada would have a rescue helicopter stationed every few hundred kilometers to maintain a perfect coverage – but resources are finite and this is clearly financially unrealistic.

SAR missions in Canada are very different from those in comparatively tiny European countries. Canada boasts the world’s longest coastline and is also the second largest country in the world, measuring an impressive 18M square kilometers. To put this into perspective, 40 United Kingdoms could fit comfortably within Canada’s borders, and yet its SAR service operates from 10 strategically-located bases, while Canada has only five SAR bases.

The vastness of Canada’s geography is a huge factor for response times. The UK’s SAR helicopter services contract states that 85% of high risk missions must be reachable within 30 minutes. The average duration of a helicopter SAR mission in the UK is only 1.9 hours whereas in Canada the average is 4.4 hours.


Sept 2018 – Members of the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre exit a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in response to a simulated major air disaster during Exercise Ready Soteria, designed to evaluate response to a major air disaster. (Photo: AB Erica Seymour, 4 Wing Imaging)

DND’s Chief of Review Services studied CAF SAR in 2015 and recommended that performance metrics consider factors such as transit times, “which are often a greater determinant in the overall response time than solely the mandated response time.”

Shaving minutes off the take-off time becomes much less significant over long missions. Senior SAR officials at the recent Senate hearing stated that a two-hour posture 24/7, although less reactive, may be more responsive overall as crews arrive fresh and have a full crew day available for long missions. But is it?

The CAF has repeatedly looked at the benefits of having a 30 minute reaction time around the clock. According to Canada’s National Research Council, the Directorate of Air Force Readiness conducted an analysis in 2008 on costs and potential increased life‐saving opportunities associated with maintaining a continuous 30‐minute standby posture. The study showed that over a four‐year study period from 2000‐2004, 2700 lives were at risk in 1054 CAF SAR cases. Out of those 2700 lives, “six [people] might have had an increased chance of survival if a 30‐minute posture had been in effect.” This low number of extreme scenarios, constituting a tiny fraction of the historical statistics on SAR incidents, may explain Government’s lack of appetite for investment such as a SAR Squadron in the Arctic.

The Senate Committee is shing a lot of light on reaction speed, making this a strategic issue that the Government will have to assign resources to and the CAF will have to abide by, make a priority, and institute a policy change.  

Resources v Sovereignty

The director of the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Westerland, said that Canada’s Arctic will always be subject to the “tyranny of time distance” when it comes down to SAR coverage. He added that investments in staging polar SAR capabilities in the Arctic would help reduce that problem but, as with anything in the Arctic, they would come with a high price tag. Thus, such tyranny looks set to continue until the Canadian Government is ready to invest more resources.

Based on geophysical realities, the future of SAR in the Arctic should leave performance matrices aside and be part of the greater plan for the Government’s aspirations in the North. As indicated on the Global Affairs website, “the Arctic is central to Canada’s national identity, prosperity, security, values and interests.”

This revised approach, promoted by the current Government, includes the “development of a new Arctic Policy Framework with Northerners, territorial and provincial governments, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis People.”

Sovereignty, for a country of Canada’s size, is not solved by borders and control but by an established responsibility over its territory. A SAR strategy has always been considered an effective and affordable way of asserting sovereignty, and should be an integral part of the new approach.

Conducting SAR in the Arctic is clearly hindered by the lack of resources and infrastructure. And yet, as the Senate Committee noted, “Marine traffic in Canada’s Arctic has more than doubled over the past 40 years, and some parts of the Arctic could see doubling of current traffic levels by 2020.”

This increase of marine traffic is an interesting irony. Indeed, on one side it can be argued that as the potential for incidents increases so will the requirement for emergency resources to be more readily available in the area. But at the same time, more marine traffic will make the Arctic less austere.

The cruise liner Crystal Serenity navigated the North West Passage in 2016 with its 900 passengers. While many observers were alarmed by a potential emergency situation, the reality was that they provided a great Arctic SAR resource – especially considering that they were escorted by the British Antarctic re-supply vessel Ernest Shackleton, which had a helicopter, doctors and full medical facilities that included an operating room.

Nonetheless, the Arctic is overdue to get additional SAR resources, if only to give the Northern population the same service that “Southern Canada” has enjoyed for decades.

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Douglas G. Smith was a contractor for the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) from 2002-2016. He is currently studying the role of military forces in disaster management.

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