Canada’s search and rescue (SAR) region of responsibility is arguably the most challenging in the world. Readers with an interest in Canadian SAR have heard this repeatedly. Why? Because it’s true!

Canada has 244,000 kilometres of coastline and 9.3 million square kilometres of ocean space under direct Canadian control and jurisdiction. Not only that, but Canada is the world’s second largest nation in terms of land mass, with a wide range of geographic regions including mountains, arctic, prairie, forest, coastal and ocean. Climatic conditions can vary greatly from region to region and from season to season and because search and rescue incidents in Canada most often occur in adverse weather, our SAR crews are often forced to work in very difficult conditions. These facts alone suggest it is only fair and right that the government of Canada provide Canadian SAR crews with the best possible equipment. So what’s the hold up?

Capability-based requirements
There are many reasons why the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project has seemingly languished since it was initially launched as a fast track program in 2004, but the most likely reasons have to do with differing opinions on the validity of the initial Statement of Requirement (SOR) and the foundation on which it was based. In the absence of a complex mathematical algorithm which would take the thousands of SAR incident points from the statistical SAR database, project them forward based on changes taking place in Canada’s North and yield an absolute set of requirements, the 2004 SOR was based upon maintaining the same standard provided by the capabilities of the previous aircraft.

Unfortunately, this standard failed to take into account a number of critical factors, including the need for improved search capabilities – something that led Canada’s operational and defence acquisition leadership to acknowledge that finding a better way to define the FWSAR requirements in terms of a capability based service was critical.

The challenge therein became stating the requirement in such a way that Canada would get the very best value it could for the money available, always predicated on achieving a level of capability that meets or exceeds a carefully defined mandatory requirement. This is far more difficult than it sounds given that the extreme challenges of the mission demand a very capable platform, while the financial climate demands that it be done within an envelope established several years ago.

Developing a capability-based requirement is further complicated by the challenges associated with correctly prioritizing and assigning a relative weighting that recognizes the true value of each of the many important requirements. While the majority of interested Canadians understand that search and rescue in Canada is an incredibly demanding task, without first-hand experience it is difficult for many to truly appreciate the real operational and logistical challenges associated with this type of work – and therefore the relative value of the identified requirements.

For instance, while many Canadians can easily identify with the criticality of speed and the location of the main operating bases, it is difficult to appreciate the other critical operational requirements, which can and do make a vital difference in conducting successful search and rescue operations and ultimately saving lives. Some such requirements include:

• Cabin size: The aircraft cabin must be sufficiently large to allow for the on-board transport of essential equipment, while still allowing enough space to enable the SAR crews to effectively search and when necessary, conduct rescue operations, without endangering the safety of the men and women conducting the mission.
• Cockpit visibility: Unobstructed cockpit visibility is essential to enable confined low level search patterns within the tight confines of the mountains, or during very limiting weather conditions.
• Manoeuvrability: As a search platform, the aircraft must be highly manoeuvrable at slow speeds and capable of operating in mountainous terrain.

Given the vastness of our country, the limitations of the resources available, and the unpredictability of where events occur, there is little doubt that arriving on scene in time to make a difference will always be the key challenge. We know that survival is directly proportional to the time it takes for the rescue team to arrive on site. In a world without resource limitations there would never be a problem because the rescue aircraft would be close enough or fast enough to reach downed survivors in time. Canada’s fiscal reality, however, will not permit unlimited resources to be applied to this task, so in the end, it will come down to doing the best we can with the resources we have available.

Today, almost 10 years after the initial launch of the FWSAR program, after much debate and after the release of the National Research Council’s comprehensive analysis of the program (that yielded a robust set of recommendations for a revised SOR), Canada, by all accounts, is confident that they have successfully produced a capability-based SOR, upon which to conduct an open competition. If all goes well, the acquisition process should yield a capable, best-value solution that can serve Canada’s FWSAR needs for years to come.

Advanced technology
In 2004, when the process to replace the Buffalo and older Hercules aircraft first started, the focus was arguably more on the rescue component of the operation, some might say to the detriment of the search component. True or not, Canada’s views have definitely evolved and there is now considerable focus in the recently released draft RFP on the critical aspect of procuring state-of-the-art sensor technology to aid in the rapid location of the object of the search mission. Canada is logically and appropriately looking for the new FWSAR solution to have a capable suite of sensors that will give SAR crews the very best chance of finding those in need, as quickly as possible.

The capability-based requirements call for a mandatory suite of sensors that include a search radar, infrared and electro-optic camera and a mission management system that are optimally integrated with the aircraft’s flight management system. While this might sound complex, when compared to other more complex military systems, the FWSAR mission system should be achievable with minimal risk for all competitors. Unlike the maritime patrol or fighter aircraft, both of which employ multiple additional sensors, including acoustic sensors, self-defence system sensors and weapon delivery sensors, the FWSAR mission suite has only to deal with finding targets and assisting crews to vector in on the site as quickly as possible.

In the early days of the FWSAR project, DND and the RCAF sought rough order magnitude funding for a capability envisioned to simply replace the existing platforms, with only limited thought given to advances in mandatory airworthiness standards, and the need for a modern mission sensor suite. These and other changes have undoubtedly increased the cost of properly performing Canada’s challenging SAR mission, putting pressure on an already limited budget.

We should expect, however, that all competitors in the FWSAR replacement competition are working hard to provide an affordable, best-value solution for Canadians, one that will provide the RCAF and the hard working, professional SAR crews with the tools they need to perform this essential, demanding task. After all, search and rescue is critical business, one where failure is not an option.
Lieutenant-General (Ret’d) James Steve Lucas was Chief of the Air Staff from 2005 to 2007.
James Steven Lucas and Richard Mohns recently joined Team Spartan, a consortium led by Alenia Aermacchi that includes General Dynamics Canada, DRS Technologies, Esterline CMC Electronics and FLYHT Aerospace. The team will bid the C-27J Spartan for the FWSAR program. LGen Lucas is a former Chief of Air Staff and Commander of the Air Command while Col Mohns is a former director of Training and Education Policy for the Canadian Forces. Both will play significant roles in Team Spartan’s government relations operations, bidding process, and overall management of the FWSAR program.