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Choosing a worthy option

A big sigh of relief was heard March 31st when the federal government finally released the RFP for the Fixed Wing Search And Rescue (FWSAR) Project with little public fanfare. It’s a document that gives little clue of the long and winding road getting to this point, nor the frantic race to the finish line a mere six months later.


May 5, 2015
By Paul Dixon

Topics
A big sigh of relief was heard March 31st when the federal government finally released the RFP for the Fixed Wing Search And Rescue (FWSAR) Project with little public fanfare.

The RFP objective was clearly outlined:

“OBJECTIVE: The Department of National Defence (DND) has a requirement to replace the existing Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue fleet of CC-115 (Buffalo) and CC-130H (Hercules) aircraft. The intent of the Department of National Defence (DND) is to procure a fleet of new sensor-equipped aircraft, including long-term In-service Support (ISS) for a period up to 20 years, in order to provide an effective response to SAR incidents anywhere in the Canadian Area of Responsibility, and to support the National Search and Rescue Program.”

More than a decade ago, the Liberal government of the day announced plans to replace the C-115 Buffaloes that had been in use at that time for 35 years. Funding was set aside at that time and the first new aircraft were to be delivered starting in 2006. But then the government changed and the project and the plan was shelved for a number of reasons.

When governments change, government commitments and priorities change, not necessarily for any reason other than that’s just the way it happens. There is a long history in this country of tight funding control for our military and it would not be untrue to suggest that the Canadian Forces were living by the credo of “doing more with less” long before it became the flavour of the month. The result, all too often, sees all three branches of the military forced to use their major systems – ships, aircraft, heavy vehicles – long past their best-before date has clicked past. This leads to a lowered state of mission readiness from the increased downtime as maintenance requirements grow, which in turn costs more and can have a significant impact on human performance factors.

Now, the pretenders have been separated from the contenders. The three main contenders – who have forged strong Canadian partners – are the twin-engine Airbus C-295, Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J Spartan and Lockheed Martin’s four-engine C-130J Hercules.

The FWSAR field features two youngish, scrappy middleweights and a cruiserweight. The three represent legitimate contenders, and each are different enough from the others to make it difficult to pick a winner in the early going. All three camps have also created strong teams to meet the demand for in-service maintenance, on-board systems and training.

Pablo Molina, head of Airbus Defence Canada, spoke to Wings just prior to the release of the RFP, on the virtues of the C-295. While Airbus has been waiting for this opportunity for almost 10 years, Molina is quick to emphasize that they have not been sitting still for that time.

“Since our first delivery to the Spanish Air Force in 2001 we have made a lot of modifications and many different systems have been integrated into the aircraft,” Molina said. “Recently we have added winglets. We are the market leader, with many missionized models, aircraft modified for different missions. In addition to the winglets, we have new engine settings that allow extra performance.”

To date, Airbus has sold 155 of the aircraft to 21 operators around the globe, operating in a wide range of environments from the equator to the high arctic. Joining Airbus on the C-295 team are Provincial Aerospace as the in-service support provider, Pratt and Whitney Canada for the engines, CAE with training support, L-3 Wescam for the EOIR (electrical optical infra-red) camera and Vector Aerospace for engine maintenance.

“We know that we have a winning aircraft and a winning strategy as well as a winning team,” Molina says. “We will have a challenging competition, but we love competition and that is why we are the market leader.”

A worthy opponent
Steve Lucas is the point person for Team Spartan, Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J. In more formal terms, that would be Lt. Gen (ret.) Steven Lucas, who retired in 2007 as Canadian Forces chief of air staff. Of the Spartan he says, “the aircraft itself is well known, it has all the characteristics that I think the air force is looking for in an aircraft, the speed, great range and the ability to carry almost as much gear as a SAR Tech would want.”

Kelowna Flightcraft will be the MRO provider and would work with General Dynamics Canada to provide the long-term maintenance care and overhaul as well as engineering and supply chain services. Kelowna Flightcraft has been a service provider for the current CC-115 Buffalo aircraft, which Lucas feels gives them an extra appreciation of the SAR business.

Lucas was quick to add that more members of Team Spartan make it a worthy competitor for the SAR program. For example, IMP Aerospace will handle installation of the GDC mission system, installation of bubble windows, a number of interior design modifications and installation of the EO/IR turret.

CMC Electronics in Montreal will provide the C-27J flight management system, and this will occur even if the C-27J is not selected as the FWSAR aircraft, but will still become the standard flight management system. Calgary’s Flight Aerospace Solutions will provide the latest Iridium communication system, satellite communications for operations in the high north where ground communications are unreliable.

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A tried and true performer
The C-130 Hercules has been a key performer for the RCAF since 1960, supporting operations around the world in everywhere the Canadian Forces have gone, from war zones to United Nations peacekeeping missions to disaster relief.

In May 2012, the RCAF took delivery of the last of 17 new C-130J Hercules, replacing older E and H models. With the nine C-130H models retained in service, the RCAF now has a total of 26 in service, flying a wide range of missions including FWSAR.

In 2012, Lockheed Martin and Cascade Aerospace of Abbotsford, B.C., signed a MOU to jointly pursue “mutually beneficial business opportunities,” which included FWSAR.

Cascade supports the RCAF C-130J fleet under a 20-year contract and it also provides fleet management services directly to the RCAF for the legacy C-130 Hercules fleet.

In 2013, Lockheed formally designated Cascade as one of only two C-130J Heavy Maintenance Centers in the world. Now, Cascade provides service to Hercules operators around the world.

In an interview with Wings last year, Duane Lucas, executive vice-president of Cascade Aerospace, spoke about Cascade’s relationship with the RCAF, as well as the FWSAR Project. “The 130J looks almost identical to the older Hercules, but internally the J-model is essentially a completely new aircraft,” he said. “It flies faster, higher and farther and it can carry heavier loads while burning less fuel. It uses shorter landing and take-off fields and climb time is reduced by up to 50 per cent compared to the older models.”

With the C-130J, Cascade is already working with a team of providers, including L-3 Wescom and CAE, to supply technology and training for the 17 new Hercs currently in service with the RCAF. That has become the cornerstone of a fully integrated support system that includes the engineering skills, project management skills, fleet management skills and logistic skills that would allow this team to move onto bigger projects.

From Lucas’ perspective the C-130J makes sense for the next-generation FWSAR aircraft. “We’re the only team that actually works the airplane today,” he said. “With this aircraft, there is already an infrastructure network in place and we’ve already got trained personnel. It reduces the risk for the government and it reduces the upfront cost. We have a very capable aircraft and system in place and we believe that we are going to be able to fit nicely within the budget that has been allocated. Capable, affordable and very Canadian.”

A new beginning
The RFP has been a long time coming, but it also signals a change in how the federal government will conduct military procurement in the future. The FWSAR Project stalled in 2008, after then Defence Minister Peter McKay was roundly criticized for supporting a sole-source proposal for the C-27J. The global financial meltdown as well as other changing priorities in defence spending contributed to the shelving of the project. In essence, the government went away and thought about how to go about procurement in a different way. The major change sees overall responsibility for defence procurement taken over by Public Works and Government Services. Then, the government released a draft RFP back in 2013 and set about meeting with potential bidders – aircraft manufacturers and the companies that would likely provide the support systems and technology, in order to give potential bidders a peek at what might be on the table as well as soliciting their input on what was feasible. It offered a better understanding from both sides of the table of what the government was asking for and what the companies could actually provide.

While $3.1 billion is not an insignificant amount of money, it shrinks in comparison to Canada’s two major defence procurement items, the RCAF’s CF-18 replacement and the RCN’s replacement of destroyers, frigates and supply ships, not to mention the Polar 8 icebreaker that has been on wish lists for years.

The FWSAR Project is serving as the government’s first effort at changing Canada’s military procurement procedure. Now, with the release of the actual RFP, we can see a change in the costing of projects for the future. The RFP covers the aircraft, avionics and sensor systems, as well as long-term maintenance and support. Discussions over the F-18 replacement several years ago bogged down over the true cost of the new aircraft, depending on whether it was based on the new car price off the dealer’s lot or did the cost of the aircraft include the costs of acquiring the aircraft, but also operating it for 20 years.

With the FWSAR program, we have three aircraft in the competition that each has their own strong points. With four engines, the C-130J is faster than the twin-engine C-295 and C27J, but the larger aircraft will be that much more costly to operate and maintain over its lifetime. The Canadian military have an impressive reputation for maintaining their aircraft long past the best-before day and there is no reason to think that any of these aircraft wouldn’t be capable of joining the list of gracefully aging airframes.

And it’s much more than just the aircraft, as the systems that the aircraft is outfitted with are of equal importance. The Mark 1.0 eyeball will never be replaced as the ultimate sensor, but the array of sensors and systems that provide a level of search and communications that was never conceived of 20 years ago serve to make that human eye much more effective in the long run.

Lucas maintains that from a pure search perspective, SAR is pretty straightforward compared to other military aviation missions. In SAR, even if the object of the search is not able to actively respond to searchers, unlike submarines and other military targets, they don’t take steps to avoid detection.

We know the vast area of Canada’s SAR area of responsibility, both domestically and by international agreements. At best, it is a rugged and challenging environment and all too often it is a brutal and unforgiving world, where death for all involved may be little more than a heartbeat away. The RCAF flies about 1,000 SAR missions a year, which often see fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft working together across a wide range of scenarios. What we don’t realize is the number of hours that are spent in training – on the ground, in simulators and in the air, in order to maintain proficiency and a high state of readiness.

SAR responses above the Arctic Circle will increase in future years as the Northwest Passage becomes more accessible to shipping and as more and more ER commercial aircraft fly an increased number of polar routes.

One of the cost points in the RFP would be the potential to base aircraft in the north. For the C-295 and C-27J, basing aircraft possibly at Yellowknife, N.W.T. or Iqaluit, Nunavut, at least on a seasonal basis, goes a long way to cutting any advantage the Hercules derives from its higher cruising speed. For any aircraft, operating from Yellowknife or Iqaluit could eliminate thousands of kilometres of distance and hours of travel that we see from the current bases. That would likely call for a higher number of aircraft, in response to the need to maintain operational minimums at all bases while maintaining maintenance schedules. These are just a few of the questions that the teams are going to have to work through as the end of September looms closer and closer.

Looking to the future
In November 1942, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons and spoke of General Montgomery’s defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps at the Second Battle of El Alamein, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Let us hope that given the time it has taken to reach this point, that there will indeed be an end to the FWSAR question.