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Future New Fixed-Wing Search & Rescue  –  FWSAR Project  –  Nov 2012/Mar 2016

Canadian Forces  Fixed-Wing  Search and Rescue (FWSAR) Project

Update 13 March 2016: On 11 Jan 2016, rebranded Public Services and Procurement Canada announced that three FWSAR RFP submissions had been received: the C295W from Airbus Defence, the C-27J Spartan from Alenia, and the KC-390 from Embraer. Testing of the three candidate airframes was to begin "at bidders' facilities" in March 2016, running for 6 months.

The FWSAR Secretariat had published another RFP notice on 31 Mar 2015 with a deadline of  28 Sept 2015. On 04 Sept 2015, the RFP submission deadline was postponed until 11 Jan 2016. This latest RFP followed a FWSAR Project  LOI amendment of  April 2014 which was to accommodate new 'Industrial and Technology Benefits'. Joyce Murray, then the Liberal defence critic, suggested that ammending the LOI had less to do with ITBs and more about delaying any FWSAR purchase until after the 2015 election ... precisely what it has done.

The Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project was intended to provide replacements for the six remaining FWSAR CC-115 Buffalo aircraft while also relieving the Canadian Forces Hercules fleet of  its SAR duties. Planning for FWSAR replacements began in 2002 before being taken on as a 'top priority' by the Chrétien Liberal government in 2003.  Funding for 15 new aircraft ($1.3B) was allocated in the March 2004 Federal budget with first deliveries to begin in 2006.

[ For a more complete listing of dates/events for FWSAR, see our FWSAR Project timeline.]

Almost from its outset, the FWSAR Project has been beset by a near absurd series of woes. Each Federal government from Chrétien to Harper made FWSAR a top priority only to jump away from the Project to avoid allegations of sole-sourcing. By 2005, competitor EADS was accusing DND of having written their specification around the rival candidate.  And on the surface, that does appear to be the case. But, since DND has never released any version of  the FWSAR Project's Statement of  Operational Requirements, how would the public judge?

First Round Favourites for the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project: C-27J and C295

Originally, there were two front-runners for the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project. They were the Italian Alenia C-27J Spartan (see C-27J Geneology) and  Spanish CASA C-295. [1]

Certainly DND and the Air Force have made little effort to hide the fact that Alenia's C-27J Spartan was always the apple of  their eye for FWSAR. The technical merits of the original FWSAR candidates have been argued ad nauseum. Suffice it to say, the Italian C-27J is bigger and more expensive than its original rival – the Spanish C295. The C-27J Spartan is also very heavy for a twin-engined tactical transport which severely limits the number of unpaved Arctic airstrips it can land on.

But the C-27J was FWSAR Project front-runner for a reason. By tactical transport standards, the Spartan is fast and long-ranging (allowing the Air Force to retain its preferred FWSAR Main Operating Bases in the far south of Canada while still reaching SAR sites in the Arctic in passable time). A C-27J carries a substantial cargo load which helps DND planners offset dwindling numbers of  larger CF Hercules transports. Commonality with the CC-130J model Hercules now entering Canadian service was a raison d'être for the updated C-27J Spartan.

By contrast, the rival EADS-CASA – now Airbus Military – C295 is roughly the size of the Bombardier Q200 airliner. Contrary to the claims by its denigrators, though, the C295 is no civilian aircraft modified for a military role. Indeed, the reverse is true. [2]  But the C295 is slower than a C-27J and has a smaller cargo hold. The lower cabin height is said to make life more awkward for SAR Techs. EADS addressed range and speed critiques in 2005, suggesting permanently basing some FWSAR aircraft further north (St. John's NL, Iqaluit, NU, and Yellowknife, NT ).

It took half a decade but EADS' alternative basing concept now has some traction – and, at government instigation, has been added to the latest version of the FWSAR SOR. Ironically, Airbus Military is not the sole beneficiary of this SOR change. As re-launched, the FWSAR Project must now consider any proposed alternative basing concepts  as well as  a possible two aircraft-type fleet.  Not what Airbus was hoping for but still playing to their advantage.

Alternative basing removes many of the performance advantages held by the C-27J Spartan. At the same time, Airbus can push lower operating costs, ability to use semi-prepared Arctic airfields, and a degree of Canadian content (twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127G engines).

A widening field means more candidates for the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue project

In 2010, the Harper government ordered  the National Research Council  to review the terms of  that still-secret FWSAR Project  Statement of  Operational Requirements. In the aftermath of the NRC's report, the FWSAR SOR was revised yet again. The upshot was that DND was told to consider Alternative Service Delivery by private contractors, and to allow alternative proposals (including alternative FWSAR basing and a future FWSAR fleet made up of  two aircraft types). That gave hope to potential  FWSAR suppliers  previously rejected by DND and to others who'd yet to throw their hats into the ring. FWSAR's field is now much wider.

[ For details of that field, see our Fixed-Wing Search & Rescue Project: Current Candidates.]

The wider field represents the new possibilities for both larger and smaller  potential candidates. Along with the familiar C-27J and C-295, other FWSAR candidates are a proposed, new-production Viking DHC-5NG Buffalo and Bell-Boeing's tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey  (at the smaller end ), and Lockheed Martin's C-130J Hercules and Brazil's as- yet unbuilt Brazilian Embraer KC-390 (at the larger end ).

DND likely had little say in these government-dictated conditions. Other recommendations by the NRC were only paid lip-service. The option of contractor-provided ASD was rejected by DND, but that is hardly surprising. Whenever billions of dollars are budgeted for a new procurement, neither DND nor the Air Force is going to be tempted to hand the cheque over to private contractors. Fortunately, for those inside the Puzzle Palace, the debate was to be between the Minister of  National Defence and  Lead Minister  for the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. Since Peter MacKay wears both hats, it would be a short conversation.

So, ten years on, there are some signs of bureaucratic movements but nothing that remotely approaches progress on an actua procurement. And yet, there's a buzz of excitment over the revived possibility of something actually happening. And that forms a sad little pattern. As a nation, we have come to accept the idea  that spending Billions on anything at all must be better than continuing to do nothing. Say what you will about the FWSAR project office, it is impressive that, even after a decade of fumblings, they've managed to dodge any serious debate on possible alternatives  to FWSAR as practiced.  Instead, as a population, we have been bored into submission. Just paint something yellow! The citizenry will be glad its over.

[1] Names and designation style changed over time. Seville's Construcciones Aeronáuticas SA became EADS CASA in 1999 before becoming part of Airbus Military in 2009. Hyphens (or spaces) in EADS CASA aircraft designations were dropped to better fit the Airbus style.

[2] All the C295s sold are in military service. The C295 evolved from the Spanish-Indonesian Airtech CN235 which was to be a Spanish military transport and dual civil-military transport in Indonesia. The C295 which first flew in 1998, is a stretched CN235 with Canadian engines.

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