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Search and Rescue Redux

by Martin Shadwick

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Three years ago, when this column last surveyed the state of search and rescue (SAR) in Canada – and, in particular, the SAR role of the Canadian Forces (CF) – it looked forward to the timely creation of “...an unabashedly world-class search and rescue system,” anchored by AgustaWestland Cormorant helicopters and a new fleet of Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft. Backing up these primary SAR assets would be a no-less-impressive array of aircraft possessing secondary or tertiary SAR capabilities, including modernized Aurora maritime patrol and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, combat support/SAR and utility tactical transport Griffon helicopters, existing Hercules transports (and their ultimate successors), the forthcoming Cyclone maritime helicopter, the projected medium-to-heavy-lift helicopter, and, in the north, a new utility transport aircraft. Unfortunately, the qualitative gap between the human component and the materiel component of our search and rescue system is widening. We are, arguably, failing both the rescuers and those in need of their services.

The hope that Canada would be able to field “...an unabashedly world-class search and rescue system,” – a system which it does not currently possess – was predicated on a number of assumptions. These included the prompt resolution of the Cormorant’s early technical (i.e., tail-rotor half-hub cracking) and serviceability problems (i.e., spares shortages) and the timely, or reasonably timely arrival of a replacement for the six CC-115 Buffaloes and the (nominally) 10 CC-130 Hercules (mostly, but not exclusively, CC-130Es) utilized in the fixed-wing SAR role. Neither assumption, regrettably, has come to pass.

Canada’s experience with the EH101-derived Cormorant has, to date, proved frustrating and disappointing. That should not be read as a blanket indictment of the type. Cormorants and their crews have performed some genuinely spectacular rescues. It is equally true that no aircraft type performs flawlessly ‘right out of the box,’ particularly in an age of heavily software-dependent aircraft, and that no in-service support (ISS) system – particularly one that has been privatized – can achieve perfection from the outset. The persistence of the difficulties with the Cormorant and its associated in-service support nevertheless remains galling and unacceptable. Nor, given that the first Canadian EH101 was delivered as long ago as October 2001, can these difficulties be accurately characterized as “teething problems.”

The ramifications for Canada’s national search and rescue system have been profound, ranging from shortages of serviceable aircraft in the three remaining Cormorant squadrons (Comox, Greenwood, and Gander), to the removal in late 2005 of the Cormorants from CFB Trenton’s 424 Squadron so as to permit their temporary, but continuing, redeployment to the higher priority east and west coasts. Ramifications of a particularly tragic nature were underscored by the Directorate of Flight Safety (DFS) following the July 2006 crash of Cormorant 149914, with the loss of three crew members, in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia. Although a “latent” and not an “active” cause factor, the crash investigators concluded “...[that] restrictions imposed on the length of [Cormorant] training flights in October 2004, due to on-going tail-rotor half-hub cracking, had a detrimental effect on overall crew proficiency. The cumulative effect of these restrictions was underestimated and therefore inadequately addressed.”

Disconcerting, too, was a Chief of Review Services (CRS) study of the Cormorant from an acquisition and contractual perspective. Published in July 2007, the CRS report concluded “...[that] the single most significant issue affecting [the Cormorant] acquisition project was the early and unchallenged assumption that the procurement was essentially off-the-shelf... [This] assumption diminished attention to risks, some of which proved to be high/significant. A rigorous front-end risk assessment did not take place to isolate and appropriately mitigate risks over the life of the project.” Moreover, “...experience with the [Canadian Search and Rescue Helicopter] CSH Project has... illustrated risks around coordination and accountability when there is a handover from an original equipment manufacturer to a contracted maintainer. When devolving total system support responsibility, the Department [of National Defence] also needs to determine the level of visibility it requires from the contractor’s system to ensure fulfillment of the operational and contract management responsibilities.”

On the fixed-wing front, the plan to replace the Buffalo and the SAR Hercules has been much buffeted. The Liberal budget of March 2004 proposed a blistering pace, with initial deliveries of the new FWSAR aircraft to occur within 12 to 18 months. Fiscal realities, changing defence priorities, and the lobbying efforts of would-be bidders fearful that the air force’s perceived preference for the C-27J Spartan would short-circuit the selection process scuppered that plan even prior to the close of the Paul Martin era. By 2005, most reports pointed to initial deliveries circa 2009. Conservative defence pronouncements during the 2005-2006 federal election campaign confirmed plans for a new FWSAR aircraft, but avoided timelines. The 2008-2009 Report on Plans and Priorities, however, announced that the delivery of 15 new fixed-wing SAR aircraft – sufficient for Comox, Winnipeg, Trenton, and Greenwood – would commence by fiscal year 2014-2015.

The latest FWSAR plan is disconcerting on several counts. First, even if cost-effective arrangements can be made to life-extend the Buffalo and the SAR Hercules (the latter could conceivably involve the cascading of CC-130Hs as the new CC-130Js enter the tactical airlift role), both of the current fixed-wing SAR aircraft – although stalwart performers – suffer from well-documented operational limitations. Second, even with modest avionic updates, which are, in any event, required to keep abreast of changes in ELT technology, neither type would sport the sensors, data management systems, and command and control capabilities now de rigueur on world-class SAR aircraft. And, third, a fleet of 15 aircraft would be insufficient for permanent basing in the north, even though the Conservative defence pronouncements during the 2005-2006 election campaign spoke of basing both SAR and utility transport aircraft in Yellowknife.

Augusta Westland CH-149 Cormorant

CF photo GD2004-0706-015

Augusta Westland CH-149 Cormorant.

Search and rescue in the north, currently the subject of an important National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS)-led review mandated by the Interdepartmental Committee on Search and Rescue (ICSAR), remains a complex and contentious issue. On the one hand, the area remains sparsely populated and generates only one percent of Canada’s yearly SAR incidents – hardly ideal conditions, note the skeptics, upon which to build the case for a primary SAR capability in the north (the four CC-138 Twin Otter utility transports based in Yellowknife do not have a primary SAR role). On the other hand, argue the proponents of northern SAR, the requirement for SAR services will inexorably expand in the face of increased natural resource exploration and exploitation, growing international utilization of polar flight routes, and, given global warming, the arrival of significant maritime traffic in the Northwest Passage. They point, as well, to the question of equity in the deployment of Canada’s SAR resources, the ability to assign useful secondary or tertiary roles (i.e., transport, surveillance, and enforcement) to primary SAR assets, and, in particular, to the fact that search and rescue is an important manifestation of national sovereignty.

The case for a credible northern SAR capability is compelling, but how best to provide such a capability remains unclear. One option would be to procure sufficient additional FWSAR aircraft to provide a primary SAR capability at an appropriate northern location. Another option, or supplemental option, would seek to leverage the SAR potential of the projected Utility Transport Aircraft (UTA). As outlined in the 2008-2009 Report on Plans and Priorities, the UTA project seeks “...to replace the four CC-138 Twin Otter transports...with up to 12 robust, cost-effective aircraft that meet the requirements of utility airlift in Canada’s remote and Arctic regions...” This capability “...will be delivered in the form of a new purchased aircraft between 2011 and 2013.” The UTA would provide welcome secondary or tertiary SAR capabilities in the north, but, depending upon the type selected and the number procured, it could conceivably offer even greater SAR potential.

The balance sheet on the secondary and tertiary SAR front is mixed. The modernized Aurora will offer some impressive SAR capabilities, but the slashing of the Aurora fleet by almost half will be a limiting factor. The Griffon fleet is also expected to shrink, but 16 well-equipped CH-47F Chinooks would more than compensate. The Cyclone maritime helicopter, like its Sea King predecessor, will figure prominently in Canadian SAR operations, but the continued slippage in the Cyclone program is cause for concern. On the other hand, the slippage has blunted speculation about “yellow Cyclones.”

What way forward for search and rescue? First and foremost, there must be vigorous and concerted action by all stakeholders – military and civilian, Canadian and foreign – to resolve the Cormorant’s technical and serviceability issues, to generate credible availability rates at the existing Cormorant squadrons, and to facilitate the return of the Cormorant to 424 Squadron, thereby allowing the unit to relinquish the Griffon. Failure to do so in a timely manner would have profound operational and other implications for search and rescue. Unfortunately, not even stellar serviceability rates would address all of the Cormorant-related issues. One Cormorant has been lost already, thereby significantly eroding the maintenance floater capacity, and further losses – one fervently hopes without fatalities – must be anticipated over the service life of the aircraft. Some additional Cormorants will be required eventually, even if corrective measures provide acceptable steady-state serviceability with the current fleet, but that would raise both funding issues, and, given that the Canadian SAR variant of the EH101 is no longer in production, issues of availability and fleet standardization. Moreover, the Cormorant’s existing sensor suite is clearly less than adequate. One option promoted in some industrial (and other) quarters is the purchase of three or four additional Cormorants, to the newest standard, and the concomitant upgrading of the survivors of the original fleet. On the fixed-wing front, the priorities must be to accelerate the FWSAR timetable, to acquire sufficient options to permit a potential northern basing option, and to provide the new FWSAR aircraft with state-of-the-art sensors, data management systems, and command and control capabilities. This theme has been usefully explored by Mark Aruja in the Fall 2007 issue of Frontline. It should be added that a well-equipped FWSAR aircraft could offer a useful, if secondary, surveillance capability.

There is one final cautionary note. If the efforts to address the Cormorant’s difficulties do not bear fruit quickly, if the FWSAR project should languish (money is, admittedly, very tight), if innovative, forward-looking SAR technologies and techniques are not adopted, or, if a perception should for any reason develop that DND is lukewarm about its SAR role, private contractors will energetically pursue and promote the full privatization of the primary SAR role. That would fatten corporate bottom lines, but it would not be in the broader interests of Canada, or, indeed, those of the Canadian Forces.

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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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