Defence Policy,
Foreign Policy,
& Canada-US



Editorials &


Buying Italian


FWSAR Project


Mod Prop
Rethinking FWSAR



USAF C-27J Spartan Transport – Fixed-Wing Search & Rescue Project – February 2012

Is the USAF Disposal of New/Used C-27J Spartan Transport Aircraft a
Procurement Opportunity Canada Should Take? Re-assessing FWSAR

Update: 27 Feb 2012 – Alenia Aermacchi has now announced that it won't support any C-27Js sold  by the US government. According to  CEO  Giuseppi Giordo, Alenia is simply exercising its contractual rights. Giordo also expressed confidence that involvement in the F-35 program will protect Alenia from any future US retributions. So, no FWSAR  procurement opportunity. But, considering the limitations of support contracts with Alenia, perhaps it's a lucky escape?

The Harper Cabinet has signed off on the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue ( FWSAR ) project. But we've been here before.  FWSAR has been 'next on the list' several times but  has proven incapable of culmination. The intention of the $1.55B FWSAR project is to replace the existing FWSAR fleet of six CC-115 Buffalo at CFB Comox and ten older CC-130H Hercules aircraft by 2015. As usual, DND and the Air Force are vulnerable to accusations of single-sourcing with the appearance of having written the FWSAR requirements around  the Italian C-27J Spartan.

Alenia's C-27J Spartan is a good aircraft in its intended tactical transport role.  But Canada is looking for search-and-rescue aircraft. Transport makes up only a tiny percentage of  FWSAR aircraft's flying time. In the past, CASR has suggested that Arctic sovereignty might be better served by having tactical transport aircraft stationed in our North – currently there is only the four aging  CC-138 Twin Otter utility transports based at Yellowknife. And an opportunity to procure such an aircraft – that self-same Italian C-27J Spartan – barely used has just emerged.

"It is an ill wind that blows nobody good"– US Defence Cuts/DND Procurement Opportunity

On 26 Jan 2012, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a US $525B budget plan for FY 2013. Included in those spending reductions is a US Air Force plan to dispose of  its C-27J fleet. These USAF Spartans were bought to support the US Army as tactical transports. Now the USAF intends to sell off  13 in-service C-27Js and another  8 Spartans yet to be delivered. Obviously there is a potential bargain to be had here. CASR contributor James Dorschner has posed the question: "Will Canada make an offer on C-27Js about to be 'divested' by the USAF to satisfy the FWSAR requirement?" The answer to that is so far unknown by those who will ultimately foot the bill for FWSAR. Nonetheless, the question warrants a little ' future-gazing '.

Before kicking the tires on used C-27Js, Canadians should re-assess the FWSAR requirement. Questions have already emerged in the press. Does a Cabinet sign-off on the FWSAR project equate to an order to Alenia for new-production C-27Js? Will the Associate Defence Minister, Julian Fantino, be making an announcement on C-27Js soon? The answer to both questions is 'probably not'. An imminent C-27J order would ignore a Government statement  that 'domestic' options would be re-examined along with investigating the rather more promising potential of private contractor-performed FWSAR in lieu of further RCAF procurements (including C-27s).

The notion of a pending C-27J purchase announcement by ADM Fantino, on the other hand, simply ignores the role of  'optics' in modern politics. The nature of  this 'optical challenge'  in shelling out to Italy deserves a more in-depth discussion. [Update: Fantino was transferred to International Cooperation in July 2012, the ADM position being closed 7 months later. After a rather disasterous stint as Minister of Veterans' Affairs, the ADM position was re-instated for Fantino in Jan 2015. Most observers regarded this return to the ADM position as a demotion.]

Time for a Think ... or  Fumbling towards FWSAR  and La Dolce Vita in the Comox Valley?

Struggling to fill an 'outstanding' requirement without asking whether said requirement is still relevant smacks more of blind will than gritty determination. Rather than rehashing the CASR argument in favour of asserting Canadian sovereignty in our High Arctic through year-round presence, perhaps we should just ask what's the counter argument? It would be difficult? That is a given. It'd be expensive?  Compared to $1.55B just to purchase 'required' FWSAR aircraft?

In theory, all Canadian Force aircraft are available for SAR duty. So, buying ex-US C-27Js kitted out for the tactical transport role doesn't exclude these aircraft from SAR responses and many of the FWSAR-specific  features could be added later. Were these tactical transports being permanently based in the North, issues of response time become moot – nearby transports capable of SAR being superior to FWSAR dedicated aircraft types that must fly 4000km North to even begin an Arctic search pattern. [1]

"Can you run ...?" A Glimpse of  the Competition & DND's Bargain-Hunting Track Record

So, tactical transports already approved by the RCAF Directorate of Aerospace Requirements (albeit for a different role) are about to become readily available from our next-door neighbour. Cat's in the bag, right?  Well, there is a recent precedent in the purchase of  VH-71 Presidental helicopters as spares for the CF's rotary-wing SAR CH-149 Cormorants.  In many other cases, other countries simply move faster and more efficiently than Canada – the Australians being a case in point. And that is the point. The most obvious competitor for ex-US C-27s is Australia.

The Australians have already chosen the C-27J Spartan to replace its aging Canadian DHC-4 Caribou tactical transports. The US disposal has taken Australians aback since they relied, in part, on commonality with their US ally. Once the Aussies recover from that shock, we should expect them to return to horse-trading ways. In other words, the Australian DoD will have spit in hand, deal sewn up, before DND have collected their  'double-double'  from the Hortens. [2]

'Give a Bloke a Fair Go!'  In the Face of a Strong Competitor, Cooperation May Benefit Both

The RAAF  hoped to benefit from commonality with USAF C-27Js as well as their larger parts supply chain. So that USAF  C-27J disposal  has given Australian planners momentary pause. That could be turned to Canada's advantage. Jim Dorschner suggests that both Australia and Canada would be better off  if  C-27J training and maintenance were a joint effort. Again, there is a recent precedent in Canada  training Australian crews to operate Heron UAVs and  EROC vehicles. Indeed, there is a history of 'quiet' cooperation between the militaries of Canada and Australia. In this case, sharing potential assets makes more sense than being in a competition.

Given DND's procurement track record, cooperation with Australia also increases our chances of success. The question is: Does Canada want a modern tactical transport aircraft to increase our presence in the Arctic? If so, how can the existing RCAF FWSAR  'requirement'  be folded into this new transport requirement quickly enough to benefit from the available ex-US C-27s? More to the point, is the Harper Government fast enough on its feet to take advantage of  this opportunity?  If so, Cabinet must overcome their own bureaucracies. Like all such institutions, DND and  its Public Works attendants suffer from hysteresis. Worse, a bureaucracy left to its own devices will always spring back to its original position just like a Memory Foam mattress.

There's an opportunity here. But for it to work, PM Harper et al would have to simultaneously overcome an institutional drift back towards the familiar comfort of  the FWSAR Project, move at least as quickly as our potential Australian partners, and stay focused on efficiency instead of reverting to 'business-as-usual' or succumbing to political grandstanding.  It could happen.

[1] It's been a bad week for CF SAR.  With the tragic death of  Northern Labrador teen, Burton Winters, family is asking why the non-specialist crew of an ill-equipped civilian helicopter was able to land when CF crews were grounded by weather for two days. The Forces might have a good answer. But, politically, not the best time to ask for $1.55B, southern-based SAR aircraft.

[2] Another, much less probable competitor  is the US Coast Guard. An unoffical proposal has the USCG turning surplus C-27Js into patrol aircraft in lieu of more CASA CN-235s/HC-144As.

  Targeted   ~  Trackable  
Affordable  Ads 
 Contact  CASR   Promotions