Friday, 21 February 2014


There is a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue program which may explain some of the problems the government and Armed Forces are experiencing as they try to procure new aircraft.

It is the self described role of the Royal Canadian Air Force to “support the Government of Canada in fulfilling the Canadian Armed Forces’ three key defence roles: defending Canada by delivering excellence at home, defending North America by being a strong, reliable and credible defence partner with the United States in the defence of the continent, and contributing to international peace and security by projecting leadership abroad.”

The RCAF further describes its mission as “providing the Canadian Forces with relevant, responsive and effective airpower to meet the defence challenges of today and into the future” and its vision as “An agile and integrated air force with the reach and power essential for Canadian Forces operations.”

In short, the RCAF is a military organization whose job it is to provide military forces for the use of the Canadian people. The traditional military roles of an Air Force are reconnaissance (often referred to as ISR-Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), dropping or threatening to drop, bombs on people who don’t do what we want, deterring others from dropping bombs on us and moving militarily useful articles by air.

Most other Air Force jobs are subsets of the above or support for them. None of these strictly military roles include a National Search and Rescue function.

In Canada search and rescue was not considered to be a military responsibility until 1949 when both the Royal Canadian Air Force and aircraft of the Royal Canadian Navy began to task resources for SAR operations. Unification in 1968 formed the Canadian Forces, at which time SAR operations were divided between Maritime Command and Force Mobile Command. After the Canadian Forces Air Command (now RCAF) was created in 1975 that SAR responsibility was transferred to that command.

Created in 1986 the National Search andRescue Secretariat is responsible for the management and coordination of the National Search and Rescue Program and works with all levels of government, police and emergency services to manage and improve search and rescue activities throughout Canada. It is in theory an autonomous arm’s length organization within the Department of National Defence; however it is accountable to the Lead Minister for Search and Rescue, who just happens to be the Minister of National Defence.

The primary SAR responsibility of the Canadian Armed Forces is the provision of aeronautical SAR and the coordination of the aeronautical and maritime SAR system. The CAF have the primary responsibility for the provision of aeronautical SAR services. It is also responsible for the effective operation of this coordinated aeronautical and maritime SAR system, which means the control and conduct of aeronautical SAR and coordination of maritime SAR operations in the Canadian area of responsibility, liaison with other SAR operating departments and agencies, nationally and internationally and the oversight of annual coordinating activities between the CAF and CCG, and regional SAR staffs.

Currently the RCAF devotes significant resources to the Search and Rescue role. As well as providing personal for the three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres, RCAF wings, based across Canada, provide military air resources in response to approximately 1,000 annual SAR taskings.

Canadian Forces Search and Rescue resources are mostly in the form of squadrons of dedicated SAR aircraft located at bases across the country supported by 750 personnel, which includes ground crew, air crew, and 150 Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs). Dedicated aircraft include CH-149 Cormorants, CH-146 Griffons, CC-130 Hercules and CC-115 Buffalos. They can be joined by almost any other aircraft in the Air Force inventory as needed.

When the Armed Forces were first tasked to provide SAR assets they had a lot of assets. It was not a great stretch for an organization with a large number of aircraft to use some of them for SAR. This is no longer the case.

As it stands now, in the near future after the retirement of our ‘legacy’ Hercules aircraft and the DHC-5 Buffalos Canada’s fixed wing military transport fleet will essentially consist of five CC-150 Polaris transports, four CC-177 Globemaster III strategic transports, seventeen C-130J-30s Hercules tactical transports and of course four CC-138 Twin Otters. Does anyone really believe that this is sufficient transport to provide “an agile and integrated air force with the reach and power essential for Canadian Forces operations.”?

The kinds of aircraft used for SAR have been in the past the same kind of aircraft used for transport functions. Aircraft whose primary purpose is moving military goods can be used for Search and Rescue. Contrarily aircraft primarily designed for SAR are not necessarily as good at moving military supplies.

While it makes sense for the RCAF to increase its’ budget and the number of aircraft it can devote to military activities by taking on a Search and Rescue function, it makes no sense for the service to spend money and acquire assets for non military purposes. 

The Department of National Defence has indicated that new SAR aircraft will be primarily for that task, with only secondary use as transports. At some point it would appear that the tail has started to wag the dog.

Canadian Defence Matters has commented at length on the issue of Search and Rescue procurement and has in the past advocated the direct purchase of suitably modified Bombardier Dash 8 aircraft to meet the need. This is the correct answer to the problem of increasing Search and Rescue capabilities.

However the problem is that Canada also needs more military airlift, it is the role of the Air Force to provide it and Dash 8s, or some other kind of similar aircraft, will not do it. When Search and Rescue begins to detract from, rather then add to, Air Force capabilities it is time to reassess priorities and roles. 

We are now being asked to make a choice between having adequate Search and Rescue and having an adequate Air Force. If Canada wishes to have a comprehensive Search and Rescue service they should pay for it. If they wish to have useful and efficient Armed Forces they will have to pay for that as well.

Royal Canadian Air Force

Mission and Vision

National Search and Rescue Secretariat

Search and Rescue Canada