Canada needs search and rescue aircraft. Between long distances, aging aircraft and public displeasure measured in Media reports of SAR failures, we are long overdue for new aircraft and an improved search and rescue organization. Its importance is even higher considering that a new multilateral SAR treaty, a legally binding agreement, commits Canada to meet its Arctic SAR responsibilities.
Right now the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft (FWSAR) Project is wending its way through the byzantine labyrinth of government and military approval. The favoured aircraft is the Alenia C-27 Spartan, a twin engine military transport with a high degree of commonality to the Hercules C-130J. In fact it has long been believed in some quarters that the RCAF statement of operational requirements for the role was tailored with the object of increasing the possibility that the C-27 would be acquired.
The other main contender for the role is the EADS CASA C-295, a similar twin-turboprop tactical military transport aircraft manufactured by Airbus Military in Spain. Unfortunately for Airbus the C-27J Spartan is the favoured FWSAR aircraft because it meets requirements for high transit speeds between southern air bases and the Arctic for SAR missions.
The current model for delivery of Search and Rescue services to the Canadian public revolves around using RCAF aircraft. These aircraft have a dual use. By using military grade cargo aircraft for FWSAR the Air Force improves its military capabilities at the same time that it provides the bulk of our national Search & Rescue assets. The same model predicates their use from southern bases, an incredibly long distance from Canada’s North. (3500 km, more than the distance from Victoria to Toronto)
If civilian style cargo aircraft, which are less expensive, were procured by the Armed Forces for the FWSAR program they could meet the requirements for Search and Rescue and save money but they would not provide the airlift capabilities needed by the Armed Forces. If military style cargo aircraft had to be procured by the Forces in addition to Search and Rescue aircraft any savings would be lost. If no military cargo aircraft were procured for the RCAF. then military capability would be lost.
This impeccable logic leads directly to the C-27 as the favoured aircraft for the FWSAR program. The logic only holds, however, if one favours the model for Search & Rescue held by the Department of National Defence. It is considered to be a high profile job for the Armed forces and they would hate to lose it. High profile it may be with the public, but Search and Rescue has seldom been accorded the same priority with the Forces as it has with that public. It is difficult to even ascertain from the Departments website who is responsible for Search & Rescue, other than the senior officer for Canada Command (a headquarters unit soon to disappear). It might even be said that its importance to the Armed Forces only becomes noticeable when it is suggested that some other agency take the lead in providing the service.
In many countries much of search and rescue is performed by private companies or government supported volunteers. There are many possible whole of government approaches to providing Search & Rescue services. The Canadian Armed Forces are only part of the puzzle.
One answer is to upgrade Northern Search and Rescue by procuring more, new, Viking Twin Otters for use in the north. They could easily, and far more cheaply, be flown by reserve squadrons. A small number (four?) C-130 Hercules aircraft could be refurbished with at least two of them being based in rotation in the north. In the south, Government supported volunteers based on the successful U.S. Civil Air Patrol could be complemented by larger civilian style aircraft run by which ever department of government is considered appropriate and using military aircraft as necessary.
The military should get on with their real job of providing military capability for Canada and leave Search & Rescue to organizations that can treat it as their number one priority.