OTTAWA - The Harper government may be ready to deliver on its long-standing promise to buy new search-and-rescue planes for the air force.
The procurement plan, stuck in bureaucratic limbo for almost a decade, was approved by the federal cabinet just before Christmas and with a slightly bigger budget of $3.7 billion, according to defence sources.
Initially given the green by Paul Martin's Liberal government in late 2003, the program is meant to replace the aging twin-engine C-115 Buffalos and older model four-engine C-130 Hercules transports.
When the plan was re-announced by the Conservatives almost six years ago, the budget was estimated at $3.1 billion.
Defence sources say the Defence Department is expected to hold a so-called industry day in the next few weeks to brief potential bidders on what kind of plane is needed by the air force.
That is expected to be followed by an open competition later this year with the aim of delivering the new planes by 2015.
The head of the Royal Canadian Air Force says he's confident the program will make important strides this year.
"We've done a lot of work with our partner departments to resolve outstanding issues around the fixed-wing SAR strategy for procurement. I'm optimistic we'll see some momentum built in the new year," Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps, the chief of air staff, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Defence industry observers, speaking on background, said three years is a tight window to go from concept, to decision and then to the first aircraft on the flight line. Such aggressive deadlines mean the air force must have a clear idea what it wants and that their plan favours existing designs.
One of the reasons the program has gathered dust is the air force was accused of writing its requirements to suit one aircraft, the Italian-built C-27J.
But Deschamps said years of study and consultation with the National Research Council, which rapped the air force for being too narrowly focused, means they are approaching the retooled program with an open mind.
"We're looking at a fairly wide range of options once the process unfolds," he said.
The research council report encouraged the Defence Department to think outside the box when providing search-and-rescue coverage, something Deschamps says they've taken to heart.
He said bidders will be expected to present detailed, innovative solutions.
"You're going to see a far more open approach to allowing different types of solutions to come to the table," he said.
The research council criticized the air force for being too entrenched in its desire for one fleet of planes, rather than a combination of aircraft, and for wanting to maintain existing search-and-rescue bases.
Lockheed Martin, builder of the controversial F-35 stealth fighter, has indicated it is preparing a bid for the search plane project. The giant U.S. manufacturer is just about to finish delivering the last of the air force's new C-130J Hercules transport planes and could offer its search-and-rescue variant for the latest program.
Industry sources said another U.S. contractor — Bell-Boeing — is apparently interested in pitching the V-22 Osprey, an expensive tilt-wing plane that can hover like a helicopter but then fly like a regular transport.
Deschamps wouldn't comment on the prospective bidders, other than to say that each proposal will go through an evaluation process.
"I think there's a lot of scrutiny on this one, so I have no doubt there will be no lack of people observing the process," he said.
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