Canada has restarted its politically charged procurement of search-and-rescue aircraft to replace its aging fleet of de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Buffalo and Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules transports.

The Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project has been overhauled significantly since becoming mired in controversy over claims the Department of National Defense (DND) was limiting competition and the potential for Canadian industrial participation.

After essentially sole-source procurements of Boeing C-17 transports, CH-47F heavy-lift helicopters and C-130J airlifters — and a decision to proceed with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter without competition — politicians accused the DND of directing the FWSAR procurement toward Alenia’s C-27J.

Following a meeting with industry in July 2009, the government agreed to an independent assessment of the stated FWSAR requirements by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC). Released in March 2010, its report concluded the requirements were over-constrained, and recommended DND adopt a capability-based approach.

Outlined to industry in mid-August, the new competitive procurement strategy provides more flexibility to propose service-provision as well as aircraft-acquisition solutions, to offer mixed-fleet proposals and to suggest changes to where the Royal Canadian Air Force’s SAR aircraft are now based. The SAR fleet comprises six CC-115 Buffalos based at Comox, British Columbia, and six CC-130H Hercules based at Greenwood in Nova Scotia, Trenton in Ontario and Winnipeg in Manitoba.

Following the NRC’s recommendations, operational requirements for the FWSAR replacement aircraft have been strengthened to make key elements mandatory, such as a rear loading ramp to increase parachute-jump safety for SAR technicians.

In addition to the C-27J and larger C-130J already operated by Canada, potential candidates include the Airbus Military C295 and a next-generation DHC-5NG development of the Buffalo previously proposed by British Columbia-based Viking Air.

Under the DND’s new approach, industry was invited to comment by Sept. 16 on the procurement strategy and the potential for alternate ways of providing SAR service. More than 20 responses were received, according to one potential bidder.

Toward the end of the year, following completion of the options analysis now under way, the DND is expected to seek government approval to proceed with the FWSAR procurement.

The requirement calls for initial operational capability by the time the Buffalos are scheduled to be retired in 2015, and full operational capability when the CC-130Hs are planned to be withdrawn, in 2017.