OTTAWA—National defence was forced to toss six years’ worth of research and planning for its desperately-needed search and rescue plane when the Harper government elected to take a different procurement approach.
A briefing note prepared for the former associate defence minister, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, spells out in detail how the project, which has been grinding its way through the defence bureaucracy since 2004, was being further sidelined.
“It is important to note that the work completed on the project prior to 2011 is no longer valid and cannot be leveraged in the new procurement strategy,” said the Dec. 3, 2012, document.
The note was written by the department’s now former deputy minister, Robert Fonberg, and obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation.
The program, first announced by Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2004, is meant to replace two different fleets of aircraft—one of them almost 50 years old—with a single modern formation of possibly 15 planes.
The original price tag—laid out a decade ago—was $1.4-billion.
Despite pledges since 2008 to make the purchase the department’s “top priority,” defence and public works officials could not say last week when a tender will be issued.
The most recent Conservative budget moved over $3.1-billion of capital spending on the military off into future years and it’s unclear whether the rescue plane is among those affected.
“We continue to work with DND and industry with a view to finalizing the (request for proposals),” Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesperson for public works, which oversees the project as part of a secretariat that shepherds defence buying through the federal system.
The program was dogged by criticism, almost from the outset that the air force had wired its specifications to favour one particular aircraft—the C-27J Spartan, built by Italian aerospace giant Alenia Aermacchi.
The complaints became so loud that former defence minister Peter MacKay asked the National Research Council (NRC) to examine the requirements.
It agreed the military’s specifications were too specific and needed to be broadened and it should also look at things where search-and-rescue squadrons are based.
A defence spokesperson cited that as the reason the years of research and planning had to be discarded.
The “procurement strategy changed from a platform-based procurement to a capability-based procurement,” said Melinda Miller in an email.
As part of the new strategy aerospace companies will be required to “propose the type of aircraft, the number of aircraft and the number of bases required to meet the level of service.”
The comment left some in the defence industry and the opposition Liberals scratching their heads.
The aircraft is still at the centre of the program, said one defence insider.
Joyce Murray, the Liberal defence critic, said the foot-dragging is meant to keep the purchase off the books in what she describes as a “cynical cost-cutting exercise” ahead of the 2015 election.
“We have been waiting nearly a decade for these desperately needed search and rescue assets,” she said in an email. “This will result in more costs and more delays to an already long overdue process, and it will put at risk our ability to respond to emergencies and safeguard lives.”
The briefing note warned Findlay, whose position of associate defence minister was abolished in last summer’s cabinet shuffle, to expect further delays, even when the plane is finally under contract.
According to Fonberg’s note, the defence industry told the government it would need up to three years to deliver the first plane because they would have to “engineer, test and produce” a mission system, which is essentially the software that operates the aircraft and the associated supply system.
Once again, defence industry sources are surprised by the assertion because at three of the six competitors that could be in the running already have established aircraft systems.
The bigger internal debate is whether the country needs four principal search-and-rescue bases and whether any of them would be closed as part of a revised strategy, the insiders said.