01/07/2013 03:25 EST | Updated 03/09/2013 05:12 EST

Think outside the box when replacing search planes, bidders urge Ottawa

OTTAWA - A pair of leading U.S. aircraft-makers is urging Ottawa to think outside the box as the government prepares to revive a long-stalled program to replace the country's search-and-rescue planes.

Boeing and Bell Helicopter, partners in the V-22 Osprey, plan to enter into the competition the tilt-rotor aircraft that can fly like a plane, but also hover like a helicopter.

In an unusually candid statement, company officials expressed concern that the revolutionary aircraft's suitability for search-and-rescue might not be appreciated under the government's approach to the program.

Robert Dompka, a senior executive at Bell Helicopter, says the firm would like to see "extra criteria" added to the planned $3.1-billion procurement.

"We believe the full value of the V-22 would not be ascertained with the way the requirement is currently structured," he said in an interview.

He says the plan is weighted toward replacing legacy aircraft, the 50-year-old C-115 Buffalos and nearly four decade-old C-130 Hercules, rather than looking to the future.

Dompka says Bell would like to see defence planners take a "broader perspective" and consider alternative ways of conducting missions, such as using an aircraft that can search, arrive at a scene, hover and conduct a rescue.

Right now, the Canadian air force uses a fixed-wing plane to search and then has to call in a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter to carry out the rescue.

Kathy Anthony, a senior executive at Boeing, says the V-22 brings a whole new look at search-and-rescue and would be invaluable in saving lives.

"It reduces the time for survivors to reach safety and their (hospital) treatment," she said.

The program, which ambled along in fits and starts for a decade, is still a long way from delivering aircraft because the government has conducted two rounds of consultations with industry.

Last year, the government told contractors a tender call had been delayed until spring of 2013.

Government officials were reluctant to comment on the latest suggestions.

The estimated US$70 million per aircraft price tag is among the biggest drawbacks of the Osprey for the Harper government, which is in cost-cutting mode and could potentially slice $2.5 billion out of defence spending by 2014.

But both Anthony and Dompka argue that the search-and-rescue system could be made better with the V-22.

By contrast, Alenia Aeronautica's C-27J Spartan, considered one of the leading candidates in the fixed-wing replacement race, costs between US$20 million and US$27 million per aircraft.

The replacement program has had a troubled history.

First announced by Jean Chretien's Liberal government in 2003, the plan has been mired in bureaucratic and defence industry sniping.

Like the politically poisoned F-35 stealth-fighter program, the air force was accused of rigging the specifications to favour one fixed-wing search plane — the C-27J.

The claims became so loud the Harper government ordered the National Research Council to examine the air force's plans.

The council came back recommending a much broader approach than just buying an aircraft. The council said government should ask industry for proposals on how they could fill the country's search-and-rescue needs and it put almost everything in play, including where to base the planes.

The idea of alternate basing was first proposed another potential bidder, Airbus Military, which is promoting its C-295 transport plane.

The government and the air force have apparently rejected the idea of privatizing search-and-rescue operations.