FWSAR: Ticking off another year

By David Pugliese

The Department of National Defence’s quest to buy new search and rescue aircraft is heading into year 11, earning the program the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-running procurements on the Royal Canadian Air Force’s books.

First announced in 2004 by the then-Liberal government, and then re-announced by the Conservatives in 2006, the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) program continues to sputter along.

At one point a contract for the $3.1 billion program was supposed to be awarded in 2009 … but that didn’t happen.

Under a new schedule, a request for proposals for FWSAR was scheduled to be issued to industry in late 2013, according to an earlier letter sent to various firms by Dan Ross, then the DND’s assistant deputy minister for materiel, and Pablo Sobrino, associate assistant deputy minster at Public Works and Government Services. At the time, Ross and Sobrino did not outline when they expected a new aircraft to be delivered.

Despite their assurances, the RFP, however, has yet to be issued.

The FWSAR aircraft would replace both the Buffalo and the C-130 Hercules now used in search and rescue. At one point, the project envisioned purchasing 17 aircraft but the RCAF has not detailed how many planes it currently wants to acquire.

Industry representatives say portions of the draft RFP have been released so far but there is no indication when a final request for proposals might be provided. “The information has been coming out in dribs and drabs, but it’s obvious the project is still far off from seeing an aircraft purchased,” one industry source told Esprit de Corps.

The Department of National Defence as well as Public Works was asked for specific timelines for the project, including the year the contract is expected to be announced. “The Department of National Defence continues to work with the Department of Public Works on this file,” responded Zoltan Csepregi, a DND spokesman.

Industry representatives say such a response is not surprising. The FWSAR project has a long history of inaction. It was sidelined over the years by more urgent purchases of equipment for Canada’s Afghanistan mission, as well as complaints made in the House of Commons by domestic aerospace firms as well as Airbus Military that the RCAF favoured Alenia’s C-27J aircraft for FWSAR.

Alan Williams, the Defence department’s former assistant deputy minister for materiel, also testified before a Parliamentary committee that the air force had designed the requirements for the search-and-rescue aircraft program to favour the C-27J.

In December 2008, Defence Minister Peter MacKay tried to fast-track the project, but again, that quickly derailed amid allegations of favouritism towards the C-27J. The RCAF has strenuously denied it has any preferred aircraft.

Earlier in 2014, Canadian Forces spokesman Capt. Alexandre Munoz noted that there have been changes in the procurement strategy, adding that it has been modified “from a platform-based procurement to a capability-based procurement in which industry will be required to propose the type of aircraft, the number of aircraft, and the number of bases required to meet the level of service.”

After all the delays, three companies have emerged to be the leading contenders for FWSAR: Alenia Aermacchi with the C-27J Spartan, Airbus Military with its C295, and Lockheed Martin with the C-130J. Each firm has particular aspects to its proposals that will position their bids — when they come — to be attractive to the Canadian government. “We’re ready to make our bid, and we’re just waiting for the government to say the word,” said Benjamin Stone, president and CEO at Alenia Aermacchi North America.

Alenia’s group — dubbed Team Spartan — recently announced the addition of IMP Aerospace to its fold. IMP will join the team composed of Alenia Aermacchi, General Dynamics Canada, DRS Technologies, and Kelowna Flightcraft. Under the agreement, IMP Aerospace will modify the baseline C-27J aircraft into the final FWSAR operational configuration and will support Alenia Aermacchi during the aircraft delivery phase, the company noted.

IMP will be responsible for the installation of General Dynamics’ mission system, the installation of bubble windows, interior design modifications (including the addition of pallets, table, racks, and six additional seats) and installation of the EO/IR turret. The work will be performed at IMP Aerospace’s engineering and maintenance operation located in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Alenia’s C-27J also recently received a nod of confidence from the U.S. Coast Guard as a search and rescue aircraft. The Coast Guard announced on November 14 that it had received the first of 14 C-27J Spartans destined for maritime SAR operations. The aircraft are being transferred from U.S. Air Force stocks.

The fleet is currently undergoing maintenance and modification for its new maritime patrol and search and rescue role with the Coast Guard, Alenia pointed out. The C-27Js are to be in service by 2016, and will be fitted with a new mission system and augmented sensors. The aircraft will be replacing the previously-planned, but no longer required, purchase of 18 Airbus C-235s, Alenia added.

Alenia will also be focusing on meeting the Canadian government’s desire for high-value work for domestic firms. Team Spartan’s approach to in-service support and access to intellectual property on the FWSAR program aligns with that government strategy, the firm has noted. As a result, the teaming agreements stipulate that all relevant intellectual property will be provided to Canadian partners so that they are able to perform that high-value work.

Airbus Defence and Space had news of its own in October as it added Provincial Aerospace to its FWSAR team.

At the Maritime and Arctic Security and Safety conference, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Airbus Defence and Space and Provincial Aerospace announced they had reached a teaming agreement to pursue FWSAR. The agreement emerged from a memorandum of understanding signed earlier by the two companies.

Provincial Aerospace joins the Canadian C295 FWSAR partners, including Pratt & Whitney Canada, which will provide engines for every aircraft; CAE, which manufactures simulators and training devices; Vector Aerospace which performs engine maintenance and overhauls; and L-3 WESCAM, which produces the electro/optical sensors, or the “eyes” of the aircraft.

Pablo Molina, head of Airbus Defence and Space (Military Aircraft) Canada, told Esprit de Corps that the firm’s FWSAR team is now complete. “What we have found in Provincial Aerospace is a perfect complement to our expertise,” he noted. “With the team we have right now, we think we have the best Canadian team of the ones in the tender process.”

Provincial Aerospace will be the main Canadian in-service support (ISS) partner for the C295 team. Molina said although the RFP is not yet complete, the process “has been fully transparent and open, as well as fair.”

Derek Scott, vice president of program development for Provincial Aerospace, said although the focus is for now on the FWSAR project, the firm has its eye on other potential opportunities with Airbus. “PAL is very much an export oriented company and there are many opportunities for a company such as us to be working with Airbus in many other countries around the world,” Scott said.

Although Canada’s FWSAR aircraft are expected to be located at four main operating bases — Comox, Trenton, Winnipeg and Greenwood — Scott said that if the Airbus team was selected, a main maintenance, repair, and overhaul centre would also be established. The team has not yet publicly named where that centre would be.

The other main contender to provide aircraft for FWSAR is Lockheed Martin. It plans to bid the C-130J, which is already in the RCAF’s inventory as a tactical transport aircraft. The company has been promoting the fact that it has a proven product which already has an established maintenance record and parts system within the RCAF.

Besides the commonality with the existing RCAF transport fleet, the four-engine C-130J would offer the air force better range and more size for SAR. But that significant boost in capability comes with the price of higher operating costs.

In 2012, Lockheed Martin and Cascade Aerospace, headquartered in Abbotsford, B.C., signed a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly pursue “mutually beneficial business opportunities,” including FWSAR. Currently, Cascade Aerospace is partnered with Lockheed Martin to support the RCAF C-130J fleet under a 20-year contract; it also provides fleet management services directly to the RCAF for its legacy C-130 Hercules fleet.

In February, Cascade announced that Lockheed had formalized the British Columbia firm as one of only two authorized Lockheed Martin C-130J Heavy Maintenance Centers in the world. With that new designation, Cascade is now dual-qualified as both a C-130 Hercules Service Center and C-130J Heavy Maintenance Centre, making Cascade a company of choice for Hercules operators around the world, the firm noted.

That move will also be a selling point to the Canadian government as it puts emphasis on high-value Canadian content and the promise of future work from the winning bidder. Stephanie Stinn, a spokeswoman at Lockheed Martin, said earlier this year that the company’s C-130J aircraft has the speed, range, and payload to meet the draft requirements for FWSAR already released so far by the government. It would also be able to meet the overall requirements, no matter how many bases the RCAF decides to operate fixed wing search and aircraft from.

“While Lockheed Martin has not yet seen the final requirements and evaluation criteria that will be included in the RFP, the greater speed, range and payload of the C-130J allows the aircraft to fully meet the draft FWSAR requirements from either three or four bases,” Stinn noted in an email.  “However, since the new FWSAR aircraft is intended to perform the search and rescue mission in Canada for the next 30 years, Lockheed Martin believes that any new FWSAR aircraft and associated basing concept should be at least equal to, and ideally better, than Canada’s current solution — including the ability to perform extended searches as needed, sometimes for hours on end, from any of the main operating bases.”

There are other companies that in the past have expressed interest in FWSAR. Bombardier was one of those but company officials say the firm is no longer pursuing the project because of the requirement for a rear ramp on the FWSAR aircraft. Its Q series/Dash 8 planes do not have such a ramp, and the cost of redesigning and certifying such aircraft to take part in the competition would be prohibitive.

Boeing, which at one point was hoping to offer Canada the V-22 Osprey for search and rescue, has gone silent.

Viking Air Ltd of Sidney, BC had proposed that it provide new production DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft, with the work being done in manufacturing facilities in Sidney and in Calgary, Alberta. The Buffalo is currently used by the Canadian Forces for fixed-wing search and rescue on the west coast.

But Viking has yet to build a new production Buffalo, a situation that would hinder any bid since it is expected than the RFP would call for flight testing of an existing aircraft.

Viking Air officials have confirmed to Esprit de Corps that the company no longer considers itself a “prime contender” for the project, and has pulled back from the program.

The lack of an operational aircraft is also a hurdle that the Brazilian aerospace firm Embraer is facing. Company officials have suggested that its KC-390 could be a contender for Canada’s FWSAR. The company has been promoting the KC-390 as a competitor to the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, but the aircraft is still in the development phase. Embraer hopes to get flight certification by late 2015, with delivery of the first four aircraft to Brazil’s air force in 2016. If the delays continue with FWSAR, it could be a potential contender.

Such delays at this point seem inevitable. Sources say the main problem is that the FWSAR doesn’t have a champion inside the federal government or the Department of National Defence. Although the acquisition of new search and rescue aircraft would likely find strong support among the public — more so even than the purchase of new armoured vehicles or fighter jets, for instance — there is a lack of will inside the DND to push hard for the project.

In addition, the RCAF leadership is dominated by fighter pilots whose focus is squarely set on acquiring the F-35 fighter jet, sources say. At the same time, procurement staff in the federal government are lacking in expertise and skill needed to move the FWSAR program forward.

Jack Harris, defence critic for the official opposition New Democratic Party, blames government bungling for the delays in the program. “It’s very disturbing to see how long this process is taking, and there is no real excuse for it,” Harris explained. “Frankly, they’re dropping the ball.”

Harris said under an NDP government the emphasis would be placed on acquiring equipment to support security at home, such as improving search and rescue times.

Liberal Party defence critic Joyce Murray said FWSAR fits into a pattern of many Conservative government military equipment projects. “It’s been a combination of incompetence to manage a complex portfolio and an intention to announce and promise things they didn’t actually plan to deliver,” she explained.

Another problem is also looming on the horizon. The Harper government will call a federal election sometime in 2015. That is sure to add further delay to the project going forward, military and industry sources acknowledge. If the Conservatives lose the next election, that could see FWSAR being reset as a new government reviews its defence policy and financial situation.