POLITICS

RCAF should have buy Canada policy for new fixed-wing search planes, says report

06/18/2012 05:36 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The Harper government should be looking into a made-in-Canada solution to its search-and-rescue woes, especially when it comes to buying new fixed-wing planes, a new report suggests.

The study, funded by the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute, was to be released Tuesday at a news conference in Ottawa, but an advance copy was obtained by The Canadian Press.

National Defence has been fuzzy in laying out its expectations for the new search planes, which have been proposed for nearly a decade, warns the report, which raises concern the process will favour large, multinational aircraft-makers — such as U.S.-based Lockheed Martin, Bell-Boeing Co., European aerospace-owned Airbus Inc., and Alenia Aeronautica, of Italy.

Both Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. and Viking Air of Saanich, B.C., are interested in participating in the $3.8 billion program, which the Conservatives have tried and failed to push forward since being elected in 2006.

"The Canadian government should ensure the (statement of requirements) does not preclude consideration of made-in-Canada aircraft," said the report, penned by University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers and research associate Stewart Webb.

At issue is the air force's apparent reluctance to consider mixed fleets of aircraft.

Right now, a handful of C-115 Buffalos and C-138 Twin Otters and older versions of C-130 transport planes are used for search operations across the country's 9.9 million square kilometres.

The government has yet to issue a call to replace them and isn't expected to do so for perhaps another year, but the air force has argued in the past in favour of single fleets, which don't require separate repair and supply chains.

In meetings with the defence industry, the government has signalled that it's looking for novel solutions, which include not only providing an aircraft and maintaining them, but suggestions on where to base the planes and possibly boost coverage.

Both Canadian aircraft on offer would be suitable for search operations along the West Coast, where aviation experts say mountain creases and folds require slower speed and manoeuvrability, but they might be hard-pressed to meet the air force's desire for speed and range in the rest of the country.

"These different needs point in the direction of a multi-type fleet with a slower aircraft for the West Coast and a faster and long-range aircraft for Central, Eastern and Arctic Canada," said the report.

The study says the federal government should rule out the purchase of the Bell-Boeing-manufactured V-22 Osprey, which was highlighted by the company at a recent military trade show in Ottawa.

The tilt-wing aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like a fixed-wing plane, is used by the U.S. Marines. It has been touted by Boeing officials as an ideal candidate to replace the fixed-wing search planes and augment Cormorant rescue helicopters, which have often been grounded because of spare parts issues.

"Speed is life and the Canadian area of responsibility is huge," said Bob Carrese, director of international business development at Bell Helicopter, which is partnered with Boeing.

"We do meet all of the essential elements with this platform, just as a fixed-wing airplane, but we bring the option for a SAR team to actually make the rescue."

The current fixed-wing fleet "just does search and assist," he noted.

But the Byers-Webb report argues that Osprey is "unproven technology" with uncertain data on how often the aircraft is available for missions and has a question mark over the cost of maintenance and repair.

Carrese said the V-22 is recognized as one of the "healthier" U.S. defence projects that's now on time and under-budget.

Parliament debated a motion almost two weeks ago to improve search-and-rescue operations.

It called on the Harper government to halt the planned closures of co-ordination centres in St. John’s, N.L., Quebec and Vancouver. The motion was defeated by the Conservative majority.