Feds set to pick new military rescue plane 14 years after project started

 
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec.7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


OTTAWA - One of the longest and most contentious defence procurements in Canadian history will inch closer to conclusion Thursday when the federal government announces a replacement for the military's ancient search-and-rescue planes.

The decision comes 14 years after the Chretien government first launched plans to replace the air force's Buffalo and Hercules aircraft, the oldest of which have been flying since the 1960s.

What followed was a series of missteps and controversies eerily reminiscent of those that have plagued the effort to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fighter jet fleet.

Public Procurement Minister Judy Foote and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will announce the winning bid during an event at Canadian Forces Base Trenton alongside air force commander Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood.

Government officials weren't talking Thursday, but industry sources say European aerospace giant Airbus has won with its C-295 design, beating out Italian firm Leonardo, which entered its C-27J Spartan into the multi-billion-dollar competition.

Brazilian company Embraer had also submitted a design, but was not seen as a contender.

The government originally budgeted $3 billion for 17 aircraft plus a 20-year maintenance contract, but those numbers have since been erased and the companies were asked to include in their bids the number of aircraft they think Canada needs.

The Buffalos and older-model Hercules are used to respond to thousands of emergencies across the country every year.

The government is expected to frame Thursday's announcement as a win for the air force and Canada's troubled military procurement system, which has been the subject of withering criticism in recent years.

Yet the search-and-rescue plane project has epitomized those problems in many ways for more than a decade.

Efforts to replace the Buffalos and Hercules were launched in 2002, with money set aside by the Martin government in 2004 in anticipation of the first new plane being delivered in 12 to 18 months.

But like with the F-35 several years later, the Defence Department was accused of rigging requirements for the new search-and-rescue airplane so only one specific aircraft, the C-27J, could compete.

The military denied it rigged the process, but a National Research Council report published in March 2010 backed up the allegation and called for the requirements to be rewritten.

The Conservative government subsequently took the project out of National Defence's hands — as also happened with the F-35 — and gave it to the Department of Public Procurement.

It also put in place an array of checks and balances which then-defence minister Peter MacKay subsequently blamed for slowing the project to a crawl.

In the meantime, the government has been spending more and more time and money maintaining the six aging Buffalos and 13 Hercules aircraft. Auditor General Michael Ferguson warned in May 2013 that the air force's search-and-rescue capabilities were crumbling as a result.

Media reports have also revealed over the years that officials have gone to great lengths to keep the planes flying, scouring the globe and even resorting to raiding a museum piece for spare parts.

University of Calgary associate professor Rob Huebert said any movement to get a new plane in the air will be welcome, but the devil will be in the details, such as how many aircraft Canada intends to buy.

"You can always talk about replacement," Huebert said. "But is it going to be a Band-Aid, or will this be a significant forward contribution to the nation's need for rescue?"

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.



© The Canadian Press , 2017