By Scott Taylor
On December 1, 2016 the Canadian government finally announced the awarding of a $2.4-billion contract to acquire 16 Airbus C295W aircraft. The new C295W will replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s remaining six 50-year-old CC-115 Buffalo aircraft along with a dozen of the older CC-130E/H Hercules planes which have been carrying out Canada’s search and rescue (SAR) missions.
The contract value includes the construction, delivery and transition phase which is to be complete by 2023, as well as an additional five years worth of in-service support (ISS). For Airbus Defence and Space, and all the other competitors for this contract, the procurement process was a gruelling marathon, which was originally intended to be a short, sole-source sprint.
Planning for replacing the RCAF’s FWSAR fleet actually began back in 2002. At that time, RCAF officials were bemoaning the advanced age of the Buffalo planes, and the fact that older CC-130 Hercules — some aircraft had entered service in 1960, others in 1996 — had to be pressed into service to sustain SAR operations.
Their complaints did not fall on deaf ears. Then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hastily declared the FWSAR replacement project to be a top priority in 2003. True to Chrétien’s word, the March 2004 federal budget included $1.3-billion in funding for the Air Force to purchase 15 FWSAR aircraft, with an original first delivery date of 2006.
The RCAF had their eyes set firmly on the Alenia C-27J Spartan. This twin-engine military cargo plane was well suited to a SAR role, and with its long range and large payload, the Spartan could easily operate from southern Canadian SAR airfields and still service the Arctic. A bonus was the fact that the Spartan was actually designed to be compatible with Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules, so RCAF officials saw the C-27J giving them additional tactical transport capabilities.
Then along came the European firm EADS, which offered up its C-295 aircraft to the Canadian government. In 2005, EADS Canada first began challenging the original Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) for the FWSAR replacements, as company officials felt the SOR had been purposefully drafted to make only Alenia’s Spartan a qualified contender.
The EADS Canada team admitted that their aircraft was slower and did not have the range to patrol the Arctic from the current SAR bases CFB Trenton, CFB Greenwood and CFB Comox. However, the EADS team also argued that alternate bases, located further north, should be considered.
For five long years EADS Canada pleaded its case and finally, in 2010, the Harper Conservative government ordered the National Research Council (NRC) to undertake a thorough review of DND’s original FWSAR Statement of Operational Requirements. First off, the NRC report recommended that DND seek an Alternate Service Delivery (ASD) option; in other words, to engage a private contractor to fulfill Canada’s SAR role. The NRC also supported the idea that alternate bases be considered.
There was no way in hell that the RCAF was going to let their SAR role go to a private company. As Peter MacKay was then both the minister of National Defence and the director of the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, the ASD option was quickly squashed.
However, with the NRC report came renewed interest from other aircraft manufacturers. What had been a two-man race between Alenia and EADS now became a field of six. In addition to the C-27J Spartan and the EADS Canada C-295, Viking Air was offering up a fully modernized version of the Buffalo; Bell-Boeing tossed in its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) hybrid helicopter-plane, the V-22 Osprey; Lockheed Martin proposed an additional purchase of its latest C-130J model Hercules; and the Brazilian company Embraer was shopping its embryonic new KC-390.
In December 2011, DND wiped the dust off the desks and re-opened the FWSAR Project Management Office. The March 2012 federal budget once again approved the necessary funding. However, it was still a full three years later before the request for proposal (RFP) was formally posted.
When the bidding closed on January 11, 2016, only three contenders chose to actually submit offers. Of these three, long-shot Embraer was declared non-compliant by March. This left just Leonardo (formerly Alenia) with its C-27J Spartan and Airbus Defence and Space (formerly EADS) with its C295W, in the hunt.
The evaluation of the bids was completed by the end of June, but as with all major military procurement announcements, politics plays a role. Good-news stories regarding defence procurements are few and far between these days, and thus the FWSAR contract awarding was something of a PR silver bullet for the Liberal government.
A fair and transparent competition had been held to replace an aging fleet of search and rescue planes — who could take exception to equipping the RCAF to save lives?
Thus, it was while the Trudeau government was in the midst of a controversy surrounding their recent announcement to sole-source a purchase for 18 Super Hornet fighter jets as an interim measure to fully replacing the RCAF’s legacy CF-18 fleet that they finally announced Airbus’s C295W as the FWSAR winner.
Nearly 15 years have passed since this ‘urgent requirement’ was first flagged for replacement. Names changed, bidders came and went and, in the end, the C295W finally eclipsed the C-27J Spartan. Persistence paid off in this instance, but it is also true that Airbus compiled a strong Canadian team of partners, which includes Pratt & Whitney Canada and its PW127G engine, Provincial Aerospace for the in-service support, and CAE with the simulation and training package.
Let’s hope that, with the contract now in place, this project moves from the ‘mess’ category to a ‘success story!’