Long-delayed military search planes set to land on Liberal agenda in 2016

Controversial $3.1 billion program will be the first significant military procurement decision made by the new Liberal government

OTTAWA – After more than a decade mired in politics and bureaucracy, a program to buy new military, fixed-wing, search-and-rescue planes is expected to take flight early in the new year with the submission of bids.

The long-delayed, controversial $3.1 billion program will be the first significant military procurement decision made by the new Liberal government and could turn into a political headache.

Lockheed Martin, Alenia and Airbus are being asked to submit two proposals for consideration by Jan. 11 in a hybrid procurement that’s intended to deliver not only aircraft, but recommendations on how many planes are needed and where to station them.

“They said we need an aircraft that can do this and we want you to optimize things,” said Steve Lucas, a retired lieutenant-general who commanded the air force and is now an adviser with Alenia Aermacchi North America

The bids were originally supposed to be submitted by the end of September but the program was kicked forward into January during the federal election.

The companies are being asked to submit prices and aircraft numbers for a fleet that would operate out of four existing main bases across the country — Greenwood, N.S., Trenton, Ont., Winnipeg, and Comox, B.C. — and a separate proposal using only three airfields.

Dropping even one of those bases from the roster carries with it political risk.

Related: Military procurement is a national disgrace

Lucas said the intention of having dual proposals was to make it fair for each company, as they bring aircraft with different capabilities to the table.

“It is very complicated,” said Lucas. “We’ve been studying it now for nine months and every day we look at something and think — Gee did we get that right? Because it is a very complex document. But we’re on track and we’re confident it will be a very competitive.”

After the bids are submitted, the federal government is expected to take six months to decide on the best course of action, but Lucas says he wouldn’t be surprised to see it go longer.

Alenia is offering its C-27J aircraft, while Airbus is planning to put in its bid based on its C-295 plane.

Lockheed Martin is interested in offering C-130J transports, an idea which intrigued the former Conservative government because it has already 17 of these workhorse planes. Adding to the fleet would mean savings in spare parts and training.

The new planes are meant to replace the air force’s four-decades-old C-115 Buffalos and older model C-130 Hercules transports currently assigned to search-and-rescue duties.

According to the federal government’s defence acquisition guide, the planes are not expected to be fully operational until 2023 — 19 years after they were originally ordered.

The last Liberal government under Paul Martin opened up a competition, but soon after the change in government in 2006, it ran into trouble with accusations from defence contractors that the air force had rigged the specifications in favour of one bidder — Alenia’s C-27J.

The air force has long denied the allegation, but in 2012 the top brass pitched the Harper government on buying surplus U.S. C-27Js.

Former Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay said in December 2008 that the search planes were his top procurement priority, but the effort bogged down and it was eventually referred to the National Research Council for analysis.

The council agreed the military’s specifications were far too specific and needed to be broadened in order to ensure competition.

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