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Feds consider 3 billion dollar search plane buy

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Feds consider 3 billion dollar search plane buy
The federal cabinet will be asked early in the new year to give its blessing to spend 3 billion dollars to replace Canada's fleet of search-and-rescue planes.


December 15, 2008
By Murray Brewster

The federal cabinet will be asked early in the new year
to give its blessing to spend 3 billion dollars to replace Canada's
geriatric fleet of search-and-rescue planes, The Canadian Press has
learned.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said a proposal to replace the over
40-year-old CC-115 Buffalos is on his desk and ready to be
presented.

"I hope to move very early in the new year toward procurement,"
he said in an interview Friday. 
The pitch to cabinet comes at a time of economic crisis, with a
collapsing auto sector, a recession and a looming federal deficit.

Regardless, MacKay said he believes he can make the case.

"It's a critical component of Canada's home guard (and) we need
to have these aircraft,'' he said.

The twin-engine Buffalos, which were ordered replaced five years
ago by the Paul Martin Liberal government, have become increasingly
difficult to maintain because the manufacturer stopped production of
the aircraft in 1986.

At one point, air staff planners were looking to buy retired
Brazilian air force CC-115s to cannibalize them for parts.

This year, plans were set in place to keep the six Buffalos in
the air until 2015, but the head of the air force said he's
confident it won't take that long to get replacements.

"Earlier is always better with old airplanes,'' said Lt.-Gen.
Angus Watt.

He insisted, however, that the Buffalos are safe and will
continue with their duties, including operations along the West
Coast where their slow speed makes them ideal for searching mountain
ranges.

"People worry about aircraft life expectancy,'' said Watt. "They sort of have these dates; these lines in the sand and worry
that the aircraft is going to fall off the edge of the Earth on that
date. As long as I continue to put money into them, they can be
flown safely and effectively.''

The purchase of 15 new aircraft is expected to run around 1.5
billion dollars with an additional 1.5 billion dollars tacked on for a 20-year
in-service support contract, defence officials said.

The price tag is 200 million dollars higher than when the project was
conceived under the former Liberal government in late 2003.

MacKay defended the five-year delay, saying the Defence
Department wanted to get the procurement right. No one wants "repeat of the saga'' the air force has gone through over the last
two decades to replace its antique CH-124 Sea King helicopters, he
added.

Last year, MacKay's predecessor, Gordon O'Connor, and then-chief
of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier suggested the skyrocketing cost
of the war in Afghanistan was also a factor in the delay.

Italian aircraft-maker Aleina, with its C-27J Spartan, has
quietly lobbied the federal government and appeared to hold a slight
advantage over the Spanish EADS/CASA C-295.

Watt denied there was or will be any favouritism.

"We don't have a clear aircraft in mind; it would depend what
manufacturers bring to us,'' said the chief of air staff.

Defence sources said there has been at least one previous attempt
to get a fixed-wing search plane proposal through the Conservative
cabinet, but it was stopped dead in its tracks by cost and technical
concerns.

MacKay said the latest presentation has been given a thorough
reworking _ or "scrubbing.''

Opposition critics have said the unacceptable delay in replacing
the search-and-rescue plane has made a mockery the Conservative
government's self-titled Canada First Defence Strategy.

The Tories came to office in 2006 promising to rebuild the Forces
and laid out as much 20 billion dollars for heavy-lift aircraft,
helicopters and tanks.

The air force relies on both the Buffalo and an aging flight of
C-130 Hercules cargo planes for fixed-wing search.

THE CANADIAN PRESS