Op-ed: Passing the buck on search-and-rescue

Michael Byers and Stewart Webb
The National Post
March 20, 2013

Nobody likes a buck-passer. But that’s what Defence Minister Peter MacKay resembled last week, when asked about the seven-year delay in replacing Canada’s ancient fleet of fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft.

“I will express to you … no small degree of frustration that we have not been able to move this project forward,” MacKay told a press conference. “Not unlike the Sea Kings, we have aging Buffalo aircraft that need to be replaced, that are difficult to get parts for, that require a high proportion of service hours for every hour of flight.”

There is truth in that statement, but the Minister then sought to place the blame elsewhere. “We are pushing very hard to have this procurement proceed,” he said. “We need the support of the other departments to do this.”

At least he didn’t blame the Liberals. For while the effort to replace Canada’s search-and-rescue planes began under Jean Chrétien’s government in 2002, the 2004 federal budget provided the necessary funds and promised new planes “within 12 to 18 months.”

It was the Harper government that, on coming to office, closed the procurement office for search-and-rescue planes in favour of other, “priority” projects. MacKay, to be fair, was Foreign Affairs Minister at the time.

However, shortly after MacKay was shuffled to the Defence Department in August 2007, officials there expressed an interest in buying Brazil’s retired fleet of Buffalos for spare parts. That low-cost, stopgap measure was kyboshed by MacKay. The idea of commissioning new parts from Viking Air of Victoria, BC, which owns the production rights for the CC-115 Buffalo, was likewise dismissed.

In 2009, the Defence Department proposed to sole-source the Italian-made C-27J Spartan as Canada’s new search-and-rescue plane. The proposal was rejected by Industry Canada after it discovered the specifications for the procurement had been written so narrowly as to exclude all other, competitor aircraft.

One of the competitors, the Spanish-made EADS C-295, was shut out because its cruising speed was just 12 knots slower, and its cabin just 15 centimetres shorter, than the Defence Department’s specifications.

At this point, the procurement was taken out of MacKay’s hands. The National Research Council was asked to review the situation and, in 2010, it criticized a number of the Defence Department’s decisions and recommended that the specifications be rewritten.

The chastened Defence Minister had little choice but to accept the report. “We now have a path forward,” he said. “We have the information required and we are going to proceed in a way that will see us purchase new fixed wing aircraft in the very near future.”

That misplaced optimism may explain why MacKay chose not to act upon another recommendation, made by his officials, to install new engines in the Buffalos so as to keep them flying until 2015.

Now, three years later, the specifications have yet to be rewritten. Last October, the Departments of Defence and Public Works held an industry day that was attended by Alenia, EADS, Lockheed Martin, Boeing/Bell, and Viking. But after the meeting, company representatives reported that no firm timeline for the project had been made available to them.

At this rate, it seems unlikely that any new planes will arrive until at least 2017, which is 15 years late. The associated ineptitude might almost be funny — except for the projected $3.8 billion price tag and the fact that Canada’s current search-and-rescue planes are nearly half-a-century old.

The age and consequent unreliability of the planes puts Canadian Forces personnel at risk, not to mention anyone in need of being rescued.

When an Inuit boy named Burton Winters became lost in a blizzard on the sea-ice off Labrador in January 2012, all three search-and-rescue planes in Atlantic Canada were — for mechanical reasons — unable to deploy to search for him. The 14-year-old died from hypothermia before a search-and-rescue helicopter was finally sent, more than two days after he went missing.

That tragedy — and the need to prevent more like it — should lend urgency to the government’s efforts to address what is already a badly delayed and mismanaged project.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Stewart Webb is a visiting research fellow at the Rideau Institute and research associate of the Salt Spring Forum.

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