The proverbial concept that “all good things come to those who wait” might help to explain why the companies hoping to supply the Royal Canadian Air Force with new fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft are hanging in, long after the need was identified by the Department of National Defence (DND). There’s also the fact that the contract to supply and support new aircraft is worth some $3 billion. That represents the “good things” side of the FWSAR equation. The “wait” is another thing altogether, and only time will tell whether it has been worth it – for the SAR community, the who’s who of companies competing for the contract and, ultimately, Canadian taxpayers.
The need to replace the current fleet of 1960s-vintage de Havilland Canada CC-115 Buffaloes, as well as the country’s aging fleet of Lockheed Martin CC-130H Hercules aircraft – both tasked with primary and backup SAR missions – has been discussed for decades. In the 1980s, it was thought that a 30-year service life for the Buffaloes would mean replacing them prior to the end of the century. Predictably, however, the Buffaloes – and the H-model Hercs, purchased between the 1970s and mid-90s – remained in service. The end of the century came and went, with DND pitching the idea of replacement aircraft to the then-Liberal government in 2002. An initial “project identification phase” was approved that November, and DND began working on a Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) the following year.
The 2004 federal budget included $1.3 billion for 15 aircraft (the original plan called for 17 to 19 aircraft), with deliveries scheduled to start in 2006, but that stalled out as the Liberals shied away from accusations that they wanted to sole-source the contract. It was alleged by one potential prime contractor that the original SOR had been written with another’s platform in mind, rather than the SAR mission itself. Ironically, new FWSAR aircraft have been a “top priority” for successive administrations, beginning with the Liberals under two Prime Ministers, and continuing with the Conservatives, who re-announced it in 2008 as part of their Canada First Defence Strategy.
The sole-source controversy forced a program reboot, notably a 2010 review by the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory in Ottawa, which eventually concluded that the original SOR had 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 published unrefueled range of 1,699 nautical miles, which they considered to be “inconsistent with the stated core objective of . . . maintaining or improving the SAR level of service.”
In the meantime, the remaining fleet of six Buffaloes flown by 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron crews, part of 19 Wing at Canadian Forces Base Comox on Vancouver Island, is scheduled to see its current “life extension” program end in 2015. Today, the Buffaloes are still a key element of military SAR, thanks to their short takeoff and landing capabilities, outstanding maneuverability and fundamental ruggedness.
In addition to the older CC-130H Hercules aircraft, the remaining Canadian SAR fleet is composed of AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant and Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopters. Each year, the Canadian Joint Rescue Coordination Centres in Halifax, Trenton and Victoria handle an average total of 8,000 SAR cases, and military aircraft fly more than 1,000 SAR missions annually.
Canada’s search and rescue environment is justifiably described as the most challenging in the world, and whatever replaces the Buffaloes and Hercs will be hard-pressed to match their performance record. With the planet’s second largest land mass and its longest coastline, Canada’s size far exceeds that of all of Western Europe combined. Its geography and topography range from the Rocky Mountains, which top out at 4,400 metres (14,480 feet), to vast territorial waters, and the equally far-reaching and sparsely-populated Arctic. With extreme weather and temperatures ranging from -50C to +40C and beyond, both crews and equipment endure tremendous stress.
Back on Track?
There were indications that the FWSAR project was back on track last summer when the government’s procurement arm, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), posted a terse Letter of Interest (LOI) on its MERX website. It was also indicated that the government would begin “sharing elements” of a draft Request for Proposals (RFP), in preparation for a workshop for prospective bidders.
Following on the heels of that “industry engagement” with the FWSAR Secretariat last year, a new “complete” RFP was to have been issued by PWGSC “in early 2013.” However, at the time of writing, PWGSC had confirmed to Canadian Skies that a draft RFP was not expected until “late summer.” That would set the stage for more “engagement” with industry and, hopefully, release of the actual RFP “early” next year.
PWGSC also said in its mid-August email that the government “has been and will continue consulting with industry . . . to find the best solutions” that not only meet operational requirements, but also “maximize benefits to Canadians and ensure the best value for taxpayers.” Despite the ongoing controversy and added delays, it insisted that “the engagement has been extremely helpful in ensuring that we are developing procurement documentation that is fair, open and transparent.”
The front-runners from the outset have been two high-wing, twin-engine turboprops similar in basic concept to the Buffaloes: the C-27J Spartan built in Italy by Alenia Aermacchi, a division of the Finmeccanica conglomerate; and the C-295, built in Spain by a subsidiary of Airbus Military. The Spartan, which has the same engines and flight deck equipment as the Hercules, was an early RCAF favourite, prompting the Airbus complaints, but the resulting hiccups in the procurement machinery have meant that the Seville-based C-295 builder has been able to keep its aircraft in contention.
The C-27J was at the heart of the early sole-source debate, mainly because some DND planners did little to disguise a preference for Alenia’s platform. Bigger, heavier and probably more expensive than its Airbus challenger, it also is faster and has greater range, which would enable the RCAF to maintain its main operating bases in southern Canada while keeping the Arctic within practicable reach. Moreover, the C-27J’s weight tolerances could reduce the need for CC-130 Hercules aircraft in a primary FWSAR role.
Last May, Alenia Aermacchi, General Dynamics Canada (GDC), and DRS Technologies Canada Ltd. (DRSTC) signed a “Team Spartan” agreement with Alenia as prime contractor, poised to provide the green aircraft platform, including engineering support and avionics. GDC would be the mission systems integrator and in-service support integrator, while DRSTC would provide long-term fleet training support. Two months later, the team, with the help of the five federal regional economic development agencies, conducted a two-week, cross-country tour in support of the C-27J, meeting with representatives of more than 50 companies during stops in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie, and Vancouver.
“We engaged in many productive meetings with interested partners and have identified a number that could fit with our platform,” said Ben Stone, president and CEO of Alenia Aermacchi North America. “We will move forward in discussions with those who can best meet our team’s needs and contribute to a strong Canadian supply chain.”
For its part, Airbus has successfully flown a winglet modification to the C-295, saying it has the potential to improve takeoff, climb and cruise performance, as well as increase range and endurance while reducing operating costs. The first flight took place in Seville last December. Gustavo Garcia Miranda, vice president of market development, told a trade media briefing earlier this year that the modification, which requires small wing reinforcements and can be retrofitted to earlier models, would be included as a basic feature in all C-295s beginning in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Other potential contenders include more Hercules sole-sourced from Lockheed Martin, as the government did in 2006 with the RCAF’s latest J models. There are valid economic arguments for fleet commonality, including a reduced need for spares inventory and fleet-specific maintenance regimes. A potential drawback is the fact that the Hercs have four engines to the other potential contenders’ two. That being said, there is both Canadian and U.S. precedent for using the Hercules in a SAR role.
For the time being, Lockheed Martin’s involvement is speculative, dependent on the amount of detail in the draft RFP – and possibly not even then. Ed Arner, the company’s “campaign lead” on FWSAR, told Canadian Skies that, “We have not yet made our bid decision that we will be able to offer the Crown a `best value’ proposition with the C-130Js.” This, despite the company’s track record with the RCAF fleet of legacy Hercules, which have been supported by Cascade Aerospace Inc., a division of IMP Group Ltd. Even so, Arner sees the C-130J as a “natural participant” in Canada’s SAR role.
However, pending publication of the final operational requirements, which won’t be until sometime next year, Arner said Lockheed Martin is concerned that the requirements “may not demand a search and rescue capability that is at least equal to the level of service being provided today.” When asked whether the J might be too much aircraft for the job, he reiterated the requirements concern; there was “parity” between the J’s capabilities and the RCAF’s huge territorial responsibilities. “The draft requirements . . . appear to be . . . significantly less than the level of service that has historically been provided.”
Arner made a convincing argument in favour of a four-engined platform; the other potential contenders all being twins. He said the Hercules legacy aircraft have demonstrated an ability to remain on a mission despite bird strikes, weather problems, and other issues. “You don’t want to be halfway to Shannon, Ireland, that’s 30 degrees west, and be 300 feet off the deck looking for a boat or a person in the water and suck in a bird . . . in a two-engine aircraft,” he said. “You really want the safety and security that comes with four engines.”
Another prospective platform is “remanufactured” Buffaloes from British Columbia-based Viking Air Limited, which holds the type certificate and contends that incorporation of new technologies such as Synthetic View, forward-looking infrared and night-vision into a DHC-5NG “next generation” Buffalo make it a viable option. “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,” said the company, which has teamed up with Toronto-based Field Aviation to explore the possibilities.
The DHC-5NG would feature the latest commercial technologies, including the engine/propeller combination from Bombardier’s DHC-8 Q400. When Viking began fleshing out its plan some five years ago, it compared the DHC-5NG with the C-27J, which was developed from a 1962 design for the Fiat G.222, and is effectively a Buffalo contemporary. (Incorporating new technology into proven airframes is hardly a new concept. The first C-130 Hercules flew in 1954 and has evolved through a series of types to the latest J. The Boeing 737, in continuous production since 1967 and still popular with airlines, has been selected by the U.S. as its next anti-submarine warfare platform, the P-8 Poseidon.)
“Canadian taxpayers will benefit from the reliability, supportability, and the reduced operations costs of commercial equipment,” Viking said in a statement some time ago, adding that there has been “serious interest from governmental agencies around the world . . . cognizant of the growing demand for the launch of a new production DHC-5.”
Joar Gronlund, non-executive director with Field Aviation, commented in an email to Canadian Skies that, “Field is currently teamed with Viking Air, and it is our belief that a new and significantly modernized version of the DHC-5 Buffalo is an ideal aircraft for Canada’s fixed wing SAR requirements, and that this is the only aircraft that can maintain DND’s operational capability in the mountainous regions of Western Canada.”
The next-generation Buffalo would use the same Pratt & Whitney Canada engine as the Q400, but it would be derated from 5,000 shaft horsepower to the 3,100 shp in the D-model Buffalo, which augurs well for engine reliability and service life.
There has also been speculation that a modified Bombardier Dash 8, similar to one that Field Aviation delivered to the Icelandic Coast Guard (ICG) in 2009, might also prove to be an effective FWSAR platform.
That aircraft was equipped with a capable 360-degree field of view search radar with electro-optical/infrared, wide observation windows, and a large aft door from which SAR personnel and equipment can be dropped. An extensive cockpit upgrade package, developed in collaboration with Universal Avionics of Tucson, Ariz., was also installed. However, a rear ramp has nevertheless been listed as one of the key requirements for Canada’s new FWSAR aircraft, which would effectively exclude the Dash 8.
Another option apparently still under consideration is alternate service delivery (ASD), or partial privatization of SAR, as outlined in the NRC review. It has an obvious attraction for the government as it moves to trim departmental spending by as much as 10 per cent. It also has particular appeal in the Arctic, where, as the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence noted in its report, “Sovereignty and Security in Canada’s Arctic,” DND was working on “a proposal . . . to turn Arctic search and rescue over to the private sector.” 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.
The only other potential contender besides the C-27J and the C-295 which could meet the program’s requirement for a rear ramp is the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor from Bell-Boeing. It is arguably the only potential 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 maneuverability and vertical takeoff 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,” a Bell-Boeing spokesman pointed out.
Unit cost remains an issue with the V-22, but its operational chops have been proven in Afghanistan and other challenging environments, after a rocky start that included several high-profile crashes. Nearly 160 are now operational with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force, and it has evolved into the preferred platform for many missions.
“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,” the spokesman said. Also, the V-22 is capable of in-flight refuelling and evidently would be compatible with current RCAF tankers.
Meanwhile, as the FWSAR program stutter-steps toward the next stage, the federal government continues to struggle with a military procurement process which critics say is deeply and maybe even fatally flawed. The recent appointment of new ministers in the three departments involved – Rob Nicholson at Defence, Diane Finley at Public Works and Government Services, and James Moore at Industry – gives the government an opportunity to accelerate an overhaul initiated by Finley’s predecessor, Rona Ambrose.
A challenge allegedly facing the government, particularly at DND, is an evident lack of fundamental business acumen to manage multi-billion-dollar projects – not only the lengthy FWSAR program, but also those aiming to put new fighters and maritime helicopters into service. A former senior RCAF officer now in the private sector told Canadian Skies that the ongoing FWSAR controversy and the government’s “reset” of its fighter replacement program underscore the need for improvement. He said that unlike their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, Canadian military personnel do not spend enough time either liaising with, or embedded in, the private sector, where they could acquire the necessary expertise.
It certainly was a shortcoming which caught Ambrose’s attention during her three and a half years in the PWGSC portfolio. “More of that can only be beneficial,” Ambrose replied when asked by Canadian Skies about the prospect of more private-public sector cross-pollination. She noted that some of the larger defence procurements her ministry had handled required it to “beef up our capacity” by bringing in experts from the private sector. “We have excellent public servants working on the files (but) outside advice . . . is healthy.” So far, there has been no indication whether her replacement at PWGSC or the new ministers at National Defence or Industry Canada share that philosophy.