The Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project was first announced with some fanfare and priority by Prime Minister Paul Martin and Minister of National Defence David Pratt at CFB Gagetown in April 2004. However, with the seemingly endless delays – the most recent being the decision to defer issuing a request for proposal (RFP) for several more months – perhaps it’s time to seriously consider outsourcing this important service to the private sector as a viable solution to the impasse.

Understandably, some may find outsourcing to be unacceptable. After all, the original mandate for air search and rescue (SAR) was assigned to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) back in 1947, and there will be concerns that the private sector will be unable to match the performance, professionalism and downright bravery that the SAR crews of the RCAF have repeatedly demonstrated over the past 65 years.

However, if a solution were created that ensured the RCAF maintained authority over the performance and safety standards of the service, or even continued to provide some of the trained rescue personnel such as the highly esteemed and truly remarkable cadre of SAR technicians, then such concerns might be mitigated, if not eliminated.

First, the private sector would not be constrained on where it bases FWSAR units – a conundrum that not only resulted in the controversial 273 knot minimum speed criteria in the previous Statement of Requirements (SOR), but also curtailed an opportunity to establish a greater RCAF footprint in Canada’s North. These constraints were based on keeping project costs within budget, and meant that the new FWSAR would continue to be based out of existing RCAF Wings (Comox, Winnipeg, Trenton and Greenwood).

Second, although the decision to seek an external review of the existing SOR by the National Research Council in 2009, following consultations with the aerospace industry, resulted in some valuable recommendations and innovative solutions that ultimately led to changes to the mandatory requirements – in turn broadening the field of potential contenders and alleviating concerns about the competitiveness of the process – the project has yet to enter the bidding phase, and the tired fleet of CC-115 Buffalo aircraft are becoming more costly and inefficient to maintain. They are due for retirement in 2015 despite the upgrades undertaken in 2008 to extend their “life” a few more years to address delays.

A third challenge that would lead credence to the viability of outsourcing FWSAR is shortfalls in pilot production, exasperated by difficulties in recruiting/retaining pilots, as well as the persistent issues for pilot training. In recent years, the RCAF has turned to the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), among other sources, to attract pilots. Underlying that shortage is the broader challenge of training: both initial up to wings level and qualification “on type” for a given aircraft, as well as recurring training and upgrades on a given fleet. Given the uniqueness of the SAR role and the likelihood of a new fleet of aircraft in the air force inventory (leading contenders include the Airbus CASA C-295 and the Alenia C-27J Spartan), the RCAF would need to create the capacity to both train aircrew on type, as well as to ensure adequate resources for upgrade certifications and recurring qualifications.

Finally, since a new fleet would introduce sustainment requirements for both maintenance and logistical support, the RCAF would be faced with a similar problem for technician training, as well as the overhead associated with the supply chain of parts and lifecycle management. While the costs for such in-service support are taken into account for the project, the inefficiencies associated with supporting another, unique fleet would not be insignificant. Additional pressures would be created not only on operations and maintenance (O&M) budgets, but also on the personnel side to ensure an adequate cadre of trained and qualified maintenance and support people. It is for these practical reasons that the RCAF is highly reluctant to consider a dual-fleet solution to the FWSAR project, as has existed for the past many years with the CC-115 and CC-130 fleets.

So, is it time to consider outsourcing within the parameters of mandated RCAF performance and safety standards, with the possibility of continuing to provide uniformed SAR technicians?

Not only would this allow for a relatively unconstrained basing solution, including in the North, it would also be an elegant solution to the dual conundrums of achieving a competitive environment for an RFP as well as overcoming the persistent misperception that the SOR had been purposefully “rigged” to favour one potential platform over another. It would also open up the possibility for more than one new platform from the aerospace industry and lead to direct employment opportunities within the Canadian economy, as well as an infusion of secondary and tertiary economic stimulus into those areas selected for basing.

For the RCAF, it would alleviate the challenge of supporting the demands of yet another unique fleet and mission while still meeting the requirements of the 1947 mandate through appropriate control measures.

Would the Canadian public accept such a solution? Arguably, despite the excellent service that the RCAF has provided for SAR over the past decades, there is a festering degree of growing dissatisfaction that may be attributed to the current basing constraints as well as the limitations of aircraft availability. The recent and tragic death of young Burton Winters off the coast of Labrador back in January served as a poignant reminder both of the growing intolerance with the current level of responsiveness and the importance that Canadians assign to this vital service – the old RCAF saying that “speed is life” rings so true, particularly in rescue incidents involving victims with injuries and/or facing exposure.

Finally, with the increase in activity in Canada’s North, from greater interest in natural resources exploration, a greater volume of trans-polar commercial air travel, and significant maritime activity in our Arctic waters, an outsourcing solution to the FWSAR project might provide an additional benefit of furthering Canada’s economic and sovereign interests north of 60.

BGen (Ret’d) Gregory Matte served for over 29 years in the Canadian Forces as a pilot, and was responsible for the FWSAR project while he was Director Air Requirements.