03/08/2012 05:11 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Search Plane Replacement Pushed Back A Year, Despite Aging Fleet

OTTAWA - The Harper government's plan to buy new fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes has been pushed off until next year, The Canadian Press has learned.

Despite years of study and preparation, National Defence has postponed until the spring of 2013 issuing a tender call to replace nearly 50-year-old C-115 Buffalos and C-130 Hercules transports, many of which are in their third decade of service.

The procurement branch of the military has notified companies interested in bidding that it will carry out "consultations" over the next 12 months, and there will be workshops to outline expectations.

The $3.1-billion program has been delayed almost a decade.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino have, at different times, named the fixed-wing search plane replacement as a priority, and a tender call has been expected for months.

Paul Martin's Liberal government first proposed buying new planes because the existing ones reach the end of their useful lives between 2015 and 2017.

A 2010 internal air force assessment underscored the dire consequences of the repeated delays by warning that search-and-rescue capability could be imperilled if a contract wasn't in the pipeline immediately.

"Although efforts to procure a new ... platform continue, we will need to consider our alternatives during (fiscal year) 10/11 in order to undertake the necessary steps to sustain (search and rescue) beyond 2015," said a strategic assessment.

The report noted the Buffalo fleet "is facing significant problems obtaining replacement parts and the current system of machining these parts is both expensive and time-intensive."

A spokesman for Fantino says the government is still committed to the project.

"Our government recognizes that quick and efficient search-and-rescue service is critical to many Canadians," Chris McCluskey said in an email late Thursday. "We are committed to a competitive, open and transparent process. Our plans include proceeding expediently while continuing responsible management of this procurement through close consultation with industry."

National Defence, like all federal departments, is facing cuts in the March 29 budget. Preliminary estimates forecast a $569 million decrease in capital acquisitions, but specifics have yet to be announced.

The project was initially delayed by accusations from the defence industry that the air force had rigged the specifications to favour the Italian-built, turbo-prop C-27J Spartan.

MacKay ordered the National Research Council to examine how the proposal was structured and it came back in March 2010 with a report that said the Defence Department needed to broaden its requirements.

A senior defence official, who asked not to be identified, said the specifications are now wide. Companies will be asked to submit proposals that demonstrate their aircraft will be able to cover the country's three search-and-rescue geographic sectors; carry survival and life-saving gear; possess a rear-loading ramp; and be able to conduct operations within a 15-hour crew day.

The specifications would require the winning bidder to provide a single aircraft to be on stand by in each sector 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The parameters are so broad they even leave it up to the companies to suggest where the planes should be based.

Taken together the requirements have led to speculation the federal government is prepared to farm out fixed-wing search-and-rescue, possibly as an alternative service delivery contract.

Other countries, notably Australia, have moved in that direction.

The Royal Australian Air Force has taken a step back from search duties allowing the country's customs authority to carry out the role with aircraft that are owned and maintained by a private contractor.

Several aircraft-makers are interested in bidding.

The maker of the controversial F-35 stealth fighter, Lockheed Martin Corp., is in line to offer more C-130J Hercules transports. The company argues that since the air force just finished buying 17 of those planes there are cost savings to be had in training and spares by adding to the fleet.

Boeing Aircraft has apparently demonstrated its V-22 Osprey tilt-wing plane.

Alenia, makers of the C-27-J Spartan, are also in the running.

The U.S. Air Force recently announced that it would scrap its fleet of Spartans as cost-saving measure. Canadian officials quietly expressed interest, according to defence sources, but the company's president warned the Pentagon that if the fleet was sold off to another country, it would refuse to service them.

Canadian companies Viking Air Ltd. and Bombardier Inc. are also said to be jockeying for position.