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Commentary

CH-149 Cormorant

DND photo GD2009-0154-16 by Private Vicky Lefrancois

CH-149 Cormorant helicopters on a wet ramp while on standby alert at Sydney Airport, 12 March 2009.

Rescuing Search and Rescue

by Martin Shadwick

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The adequacy, or, more to the point, the perceived inadequacy, of Canada’s national search and rescue (SAR) system has of late been receiving renewed scrutiny from both the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, and the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence. This attention has been prompted by a litany of issues—including, but by no means confined to, the SAR response to the tragic loss of a Cougar Helicopters S-92 off the coast of Newfoundland in March 2009, the continued lack of a credible search and rescue capability in the Arctic, repeated delays and controversies in the plan to replace the long-serving CC-115 Buffalo and the SAR-assigned CC-130 Hercules with a new fleet of Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft, on-going serviceability and other problems with the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter, and troubling limitations in other aircraft types utilized or intended to be utilized for primary or secondary SAR applications. Rounding out this package are renewed debates over the extent to which expanded alternative service delivery (ASD) could or should be applied to search and rescue. One would like to hope, however, that inspired leadership might seize the opportunity for a much more sweeping review of, and debate over, the broader vision, direction, management, and coordination of the national search and rescue program in Canada. There is, perhaps, a window of opportunity for a thoughtful, thoroughgoing, and holistic evaluation of search and rescue (and closely related issues) in Canada, but, equally, there is also the potential for either a continuing SAR policy vacuum (a malaise, suggest the critics, that extends back many years over successive governments) or an ad hoc, unrewarding, and potentially acrimonious discourse that will do little or nothing to address the very real challenges that have for too long confronted search and rescue in this nation.

One recent manifestation of heightened Parliamentary interest in search and rescue was the Standing Senate Committee’s Interim Report, Sovereignty & Security in Canada’s Arctic. Tabled on 22 March 2011—and thereby largely but understandably ignored by a media focused upon a looming federal election and unfolding events in Japan and Libya—the report noted that witnesses had made “… two basic observations about search and rescue in the Arctic. First, the need is on the rise. Second, response times are potentially too slow…” The report also took note of a suggestion by Pierre Leblanc that the Canadian Forces “… base a single [CC-130] Hercules aircraft at Yellowknife, home to Joint Task Force (North), rotating it south for maintenance but always keeping one on station.” The committee recommended that Ottawa “… make speedy acquisition of new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft the top military procurement priority,” and that “… the Government, in order to reduce SAR response times in the Arctic, position Canadian Forces SAR assets at a central location in the North such that there is always an aircraft on standby, as in the South, to respond quickly to emergencies.” Potentially at odds with this recommendation was the report’s later acknowledgment that the committee “… may wish to continue its study of Arctic security by looking further” into such issues as “… [a] proposal being worked on to turn Arctic search and rescue over to the private sector, under command and control of the Canadian Forces.”

The House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence study of SAR response times, initiated in 2010, has likewise generated some intriguing testimony—none more so than that offered by John McDougall, President of the National Research Council Canada (NRC). In late 2009, “… following consultation with the aerospace industry”—as one DND document so delicately phrased the palpable frustration of various players in the long-running FWSAR saga—the Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada contracted the NRC under a Memorandum of Understanding to conduct “an independent review” of the FWSAR Statement of Operational Requirement.” This led to an interim report on 5 February 2010, and a final report on 12 March 2010. In testimony before the House committee on 14 February 2011, John McDougall noted: “… [that] the principal conclusion of the report was that the statement of operational requirement, as written, was over-constrained. By this we mean the application of the statement of requirement would likely make it difficult to achieve the overarching objective of acquiring an aircraft to provide the level of search and rescue service equal to that currently provided.” Moreover, “… the 2006 statement of requirement for Canada’s new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft should be amended to reflect a capability approach, rather than a platform-centric one…” The NRC report, noted McDougall, also advised “… [that] the Government of Canada should review the current policy, in which the Canadian Forces provide all primary fixed-wing search and rescue service. The government would do this by conducting an in-depth analysis of the cost and potential benefits of providing part of the fixed-wing search and rescue solution though contracted support for elements such as aircraft, aircrew, and maintenance, including civilian sources. Use of civilian helicopters is already in place to provide initial levels of support to the military rotary-wing search and rescue community.”

In addition, “… the Government of Canada should develop policy to define the required level of service for search and rescue, in terms of response time that ought to be provided by either the Canadian Forces or another provider, without reference to the existing [Buffalo and Hercules] aircraft,” and “… DND should change the statement of operational requirement to allow bidders more flexibility in meeting the requirement. For example, this could include the consideration of other options for Main Operating Bases,  or the consideration of a proposal with more than a single type of [fixed-wing] aircraft.” In this regard, “… the authors of NRC’s report concluded that utilizing some contracted fixed-wing search and rescue response could possibly provide a cost-effective alternative to alleviate some of the costs with associated with establishing or relocating a main operating base or requiring an aircraft with high cruise speed for all scenarios.” The NRC report further recommended: “… [that] DND change many of the rated requirements in the statement of requirement to mandatory requirements.” Examples cited by McDougall included a rear ramp, and the capability to use short gravel runways and to operate in icing conditions. The report also recommended that DND “… use alternative analytical methods to determine the minimum cargo compartment dimensions, rather than those specified in the 2006 statement of operational requirement. These methods could be based on a retrospective study of injuries to search and rescue technicians.”

The actual final report of the NRC is, if anything, noticeably more blunt and disconcerting than the testimony provided to the House committee. Indeed, it should be required reading—not only for those interested in matters of search and rescue, but for those interested in the trials and tribulations of Canadian defence procurement. Given the candid and thought-provoking issues raised by the NRC analysts—and given that the Canadian defence procurement system rarely functions like a well-oiled machine (even before the full impact of political and industrial considerations are taken into account)—one is tempted to suggest, only partly tongue in cheek, that the NRC should have been independently reviewing all of DND’s SORs over the past fifty years. Consider, for example, the report’s response to the SOR’s “… assumption...that the new FWSAR overall level of service provided to the Canadian public must be at least equivalent to the current capability.” As the report notes, the “ ‘current capability’ could be interpreted to include the speed at which an existing FWSAR aircraft can reach a given location in the Canadian Search and Rescue Region (SRR) and the time it can remain there conducting a search using existing sensors. If this interpretation is correct, then this assumption is not currently met by the SOR…” First, “… an aircraft compliant with the SOR may not provide the same transit time and/or time-on-station in the far north and mid-Atlantic scenarios as the current legacy CC-130 Hercules. Second, the assumption is not applied consistently in developing the [High Level Mandatory Capability] requirements. For example, the SOR does not require that the FWSAR be capable of operating in icing conditions, from gravel runways or from austere airfields, all of which the current fleets are able to do.” Third, “… this assumption does not require any enhancement of SAR method, such as significant technological advances in search radar and electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensors. As currently specified, an aircraft could comply with the SOR HLMC with sensors no more sophisticated than the eyes of its crewmembers.” So much for a world-class search and rescue system.

On balance, then, the NRC independent review has been a useful exercise. Indeed, “ … based on the report’s findings and recommendations”—as DND has itself noted—“the Air Force is revising the SOR in support of the procurement of a new FWSAR aircraft for the Canadian Forces, and is also conducting further human factors research on SAR technician in-flight tasks.” This is not to suggest that one should be unquestioning in one’s reading and analysis of the NRC report. Some observers, for example, may posit that the report’s apparent enthusiasm for additional private sector involvement in search and rescue exceeded the NRC’s remit. I am not inclined to accept that argument on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to evaluate SAR in a modern context without at least some exploration of ASD, but I am not necessarily convinced that the rotary-wing precedents identified by the report are applicable or transferable to the fixed-wing search and rescue environment. It is also extremely important to take note of the broader realities of search and rescue in a Canadian context. As the final report noted, “… the NRC team recognized that many [FWSAR] assumptions and constraints have been imposed for budgetary reasons. However, the NRC review is of a technical nature that, while sensitive to, is not constrained by budgetary and strategic requirements of DND.” Those “strategic requirements” are extremely broad in nature, and speak to a plethora of vital Canadian security and sovereignty interests and capabilities. They also underscore the importance of adopting truly holistic criteria for assessing Canadian search and rescue and related requirements, options, and capabilities. How, for example, does one quantify and assess the relative merits of a modern, civilian-operated primary SAR aircraft stationed in the north with a modern, military-operated primary SAR aircraft stationed in the north that can also perform secondary or tertiary airlift and surveillance tasks of broader national importance? Would the additional privatization of primary and/or secondary SAR inevitably mean the eventual loss of most of the military’s current SAR mandate? There are implications to that scenario, and they go far, far beyond mere public relations.

The challenges confronting SAR in Canada are not, of course, confined to the delays in replacing the ill-equipped Buffaloand Hercules. The Cormorant remains a source of concern, primarily but not exclusively because of continuing serviceability issues, although one hopes that the proposed acquisition of surplus American VH-71 presidential helicopters for spares could prove beneficial in this regard. The CH-146 Griffon helicopters utilized for primary SAR—initially, it was hoped, as a short-term expedient, pending the return of the Cormorant to Trenton’s 424 Squadron—are particularly ill-suited to that role, given their modest size and range, lack of emergency flotation equipment, close to non-existent mission avionics suite, and other limitations. It is supremely ironic that the Griffons civilianized for privatized flying training at Portage la Prairie were retrofitted with radar, but that military Griffons employed in a front-line SAR role are not so equipped. Although somewhat less serious in a secondary SAR role, the Griffons operated by the combat support squadrons suffer from the same limitations. The modernized CP-140 Auroraconstitutes an emerging bright spot in the secondary SAR role, but the slashing of the Aurora fleet by almost half imposes obvious constraints. The CH-148 Cyclone should prove most useful for secondary SAR, but delays in delivery remain a concern. The CH-147F Chinook will no doubt prove useful for both secondary SAR and disaster relief, but the reduction in fleet size from 16 to 15 aircraft, and, more tellingly, the drop in main operating bases from two to one—although understandable, given fiscal realities—will have ramifications for both roles. One tends to be less charitable regarding the decision to forego rescue hoists on the CH-147F fleet. Even the Trudeau government—which, in its early years, was exceptionally frugal with defence spending—managed to scrape up enough money to equip Canada’s original fleet of CH-147C Chinooks with rescue hoists.

As important as these hardware, basing, and division of labour issues are, as important as the issues raised by the report of the NRC are, and as potentially useful as the deliberations of Parliamentarians are, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that search and rescue in Canada—which, arguably, still lacks real levels of service criteria—requires something more. Decades ago, Ottawa commissioned an assessment of the effectiveness of search and rescue in the form of a particularly thorough program evaluation. The result, now largely forgotten, was the Cross Report of 1982. Today, in a much more complex search and rescue environment with far more stakeholders, and even tighter fiscal constraints, the case for a comprehensive and holistic review of the national search and rescue program and closely related national requirements is clear and compelling.

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.

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