03/10/2012 04:10 EST | Updated 05/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Search plane replacement vexes Tories, as more industry consultations announced

OTTAWA - National Defence was close to getting a green light from cabinet to buy new fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes three times since 2007, but the $3.1-billion plan has been shot down by objections from other departments, say senior defence sources.

Frustration among senior defence and military officials over the Conservative government's inability to move forward with the project to replace nearly 50-year-old C-115 Buffalos and three-decade-old C-130-H Hercules transports was palpable Friday.

Potential bidders were informed this week that a formal tender call has been put off until next year, raising questions about whether the continued delays could potentially cost lives.

The Buffalos reach their end of their service life in less than three years and face severe parts shortages.

Defence sources said Industry Canada has raised concern about the regional industrial benefits, and Public Works questioned the process for selecting the new search plane.

"It's been close three times, but it's been pulled back three times," said one senior official.

The program, originally announced by the Martin government, has been stuck for nearly a decade.

The Harper government had been hoping for an announcement this summer to highlight the plan. But information released Friday shows the project will still be deep in the consultation and discussion phase.

Public Works released a notice, asking prospective bidders to come forward with letters of interest and said that the first in a series on information workshops on the program will take place on April 11.

Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps, chief of the air staff, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press that once formal proposals are received they'll face further review against the air force's "criteria for mission success."

But the fact it will take another year to get to that stage worries Liberal defence critic John McKay.

"I don't get it," he said Friday. "It's not as if this procurement hasn't been around for years, decades in fact. And I, for the life of me, can't figure out why this is such a complicated procurement."

There were allegations five years ago that the air force had rigged the bid criteria to favour the Italian-built C-27J Spartan, prompting defence minister to order an arms-length review by the National Research Council.

But McKay said the issue has been studied and consulted in detail, and it's time to open up to formal tender.

It's a matter of public safety, he said.

"The longer this goes, the greater the likelihood that something bad is going to happen," McKay said.

He warned the availability of fixed-wing search planes could decline, despite the best efforts of mechanics, and a potentially tragic situation could planes are not around when they're needed.

The Conservatives have for years made political hay over the Liberals inability and unwillingness to replace the air force's aging Sea King helicopters when they were in power.

McKay said the Harper government has lost its bragging rights thanks to the search plane dilemma.