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The Alenia Aermacci C-27J Spartan artistís conception in SAR livery.  

The Alenia Aermacci C-27J Spartan artist’s conception in SAR livery.

FWSAR Plus: A Way Forward

How to expand the Fixed Wing SAR project into a comprehensive solution that satisfies multiple operational requirements with Canadian solutions.

by Jim Dorschner

“We will continue to provide persistent air control of Canada’s airspace and approaches.

  • We will ensure our continuing mobility and ability to independently respond rapidly to domestic and international events.
  • We will continue be interoperable with our allies.
  • We will continue to be expeditionary – at home and abroad.
  • Our operations in the Canadian Arctic will grow in importance.
  • We will continue to provide one of the best search and rescue capabilities in the world.”

    – Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, 22 March 2012

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The requirement to replace Canadian Forces (CF) Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft capability was formalized in 2004, but the project remained more or less stillborn amidst Government confusion concerning the program’s scope, which procurement path to take and repeated delays engendered by the pressing needs of combat operations in Afghanistan.  Recent developments offer an opportunity to finally advance domestic SAR while adding a slate of new and improved operational capabilities by using a focused mix of aircraft types.         

In January 2012, the Government signaled intent to proceed with FWSAR, and in March, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) informed the author that, "PWGSC is planning to release the RFP in the Winter 2012/13 time frame."  The PWGSC spokeswoman added that determination of a revised Initial Operational Capability (IOC) date depends upon "consultation with industry."  If a contract is concluded in 2013, IOC will likely occur in 2016.

FWSAR Plus Concept

With program launch looming, a detailed examination is merited of broader capabilities that can be achieved beyond SAR, and the range of potential solutions.  The result is FWSAR Plus with two components:

  • Reduce the dedicated FWSAR buy from 15 C-27J Spartans to ten Canadian–manufactured Q400-based SAR aircraft, to be split between CFBs Comox and Greenwood, with deployments as required to Forward Operating Bases, such as Yellowknife, Goose Bay, and Iqaluit for domestic SAR/Medevac and Arctic/offshore sovereignty surveillance.
  • Retire/sell off all remaining H-model Hercules transports and procure ten additional new Hercules, based on the HC-130J Combat King SAR platform now entering service with the US Air Force (USAF), to be split between CFBs Winnipeg and Trenton in aerial refueling and Special Operations / Combat SAR roles respectively, along with domestic SAR response in Central Canada.      

Since 2004 the Government, the Department of National Defence (DND), and the RCAF have consistently leaned towards sole-source acquisition of 15 Alenia C-27J Spartan light tactical airlift aircraft to replace the current FWSAR fleet of CC-115 Buffalos and legacy CC-130 Hercules, even as potential competitors EADS CASA, Lockheed Martin, and the Canadian firms Bombardier, Field Aviation, and Viking Air have vigorously promoted alternatives and worked to keep the FWSAR project competitive.  

A CC-130 Hercules in a maritime setting off Canadaís west coast.

DND photo (CFJIC) CX2005-0096-332a

A CC-130 Hercules in a maritime setting off Canada’s west coast.

Reducing the FWSAR buy from 15 Italian-made C-27J Spartan light tactical transports to ten less expensive, but better-equipped and more capable Canadian-built aircraft will expend less than half of the C$.55 Billion designated for the program. The balance remaining can then be applied towards procuring ten HC-130Js. Given the 17 new CC-130Js already in service with 8 Wing at Trenton, a standardized fleet of 27 multi-mission capable J-model Hercules serving alongside ten modern, state-of-the-art dedicated FWSAR aircraft offers enormous operational flexibility, training, and maintenance benefits, along with clear procurement and lifecycle cost benefits.  

Additional roles and missions addressed by FWSAR Plus range from augmenting the airlift fleet and the long-range patrol aircraft force to aerial refueling and Special Operations Forces (SOF) support. This inherent flexibility enhances overall CF support to increasingly important Arctic operations, and, in the case of new HC-130Js, a range of potential international missions.

Requirements and Contenders

According to the DND FWSAR Factsheet, Canada has one of the most challenging search and rescue environments in the world. It consists of the second largest land mass surrounded by the longest coastline, encompassing an immense area of approximately 18 million square kilometers. The operational environment within the Canadian SAR region ranges from the Rocky Mountains, to vast territorial waters and expansive Arctic tundra, much of it with little infrastructure or population, and subject to extreme weather conditions, including temperatures varying from -50C to +40C.

The DND assumed primary responsibility for Federal aerial SAR across Canada in 1947, which CF assets now provide with augmentation from the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, provincial and municipal police forces, and the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association. Canada’s three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trenton, Ontario, and Victoria, British Columbia annually handle an average of 8000 air and marine SAR cases, with CF aircraft alone conducting over 1000 missions per year. F SAR mission requirements include rapid response to downed aircraft emergencies and distressed vessels, emergency medical evacuation from remote communities, and assistance to provincial and territorial authorities with a combination of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The latter are particularly important, given the vast distances involved. 

The RCAF currently designates 13 CC130H Hercules and six CC115 Buffalo aircraft for FWSAR response. The Hercules operate from CFBs Greenwood, Trenton, and Winnipeg, while the Buffalos are all based at CFB Comox.  Of these, the six Buffalos and the Hercules at Greenwood and Trenton are dedicated to SAR, with transport as a secondary mission, while the Hercules at Winnipeg are predominately employed on airlift and aerial refueling tasks. The Buffalos have been in service since the 1960s, while many of the Hercules date from the1970s, and all are now approaching the end of their effective service lives.

Reflecting this urgency, a FWSAR Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) was developed by DND in 2004. Thereafter, momentum began building within the DND and the CF for direct acquisition of C-27Js, based upon their performance and commonality with the RCAF’s new CC-130Js. By the fall of 2009, alarmed supporters of a more open competition prompted the DND to request an independent review of the SOR by the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC review, presented to the Government in 2010, focused upon technical requirements and the assumptions and constraints underlying them. 

Based upon the NRC review, the SOR was amended to allow for a wider range of FWSAR solutions in competition with the C-27J. Contenders include the EADS CASA C-295, and the Lockheed Martin ‘short’ Hercules. Canadian options include a proposal from British Colombia-based Viking Air for new or refurbished Next Generation Buffalos with Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150 engines, new props, and an advanced avionics suite, all borrowed from the Bombardier Q400 regional airliner. In turn, Bombardier and Field Aviation offer a Q400 solution, based upon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA) versions of the Dash 8 that Field Aviation has produced for multiple customers around the world, featuring integrated sensors, longer range, and in-flight doors permitting the air drop of Rescue Technicians and survival equipment.

In addition to an airdrop capability, the FWSAR mission requires observation windows on either side of the fuselage with corresponding observer seats and an intensive care medevac package.  Surveillance system requirements include multi-mode radar and electro-optic day/night FLIR with the ability to downlink imagery, along with a satellite voice and data communications capability and sensor operator/mission manager workstation(s).
An often-understated factor in FWSAR analysis thus far is that modern platforms are capable of much more than serving as strictly domestic SAR assets. At a SAR Europe conference in Dublin in March sponsored by Shepherd Media, a figure widely used by participants was that only around three percent of asset time and capacity is typically used on actual SAR operations. Even with more than 1000 SAR missions flown annually by the CF, the total capacity of available assets is heavily underutilized. Dedicated FWSAR aircraft can and should be available to perform surveillance and other support missions without risking SAR coverage. 

A prime example of the flexibility inherent in a mixed FWSAR Plus fleet is the ability to respond to a major ship or aircraft accident in the Canadian North with forward deployed SAR, medevac, surveillance, airlift, helicopter refueling, dispersant spray, and on-scene airborne Command and Control (C2).

An Alenia C-27J Spartan landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 22 July 2010.

Reuters photo RTR2GMVV by Luke MacGregor

An Alenia C-27J Spartan landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 22 July 2010.

C-27J Spartan

On 26 January 2012, a US Department of Defense (DoD) announcement appeared to present an opportunity to expeditiously proceed with FWSAR, while potentially reducing acquisition costs and delivering the desired solution. The USAF intends to ‘divest’ itself of 21 C-27J transport aircraft acquired since 2008 under the now-cancelled Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) program, along with options for another 17 not yet ordered.  Possibly anticipating the divestment decision, in December 2011, Australia formally requested a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of ten C-27J Spartans from the US to replace Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) DHC-4 Caribous retired in 2009, and remaining C-130H-model Hercules slated for retirement.

Until the end of February, it appeared that Canada might follow Australia’s lead and ‘snap up’ the rest of these suddenly-redundant new C-27Js. Then, Giuseppi Giordo, the CEO of Alenia Aermacchi, squashed the idea by announcing that Alenia would not support the sale of any American Spartans to third countries, meaning buyers would be denied critical spares and technical authorities, thereby making the aircraft virtually impossible to maintain. His rationale is that any resale of American C-27Js cuts into potential sales by Alenia in a very tight market. He is happy to manufacture new C-27Js for US Foreign Military Sales to Australia and Canada, but considers any onward sales of American aircraft as direct competition with Alenia. “If they want to sell additional airplanes as FMS, we will support them, but not those 21.” Giordo stipulated. “In that case the US Government will be competing against our international campaigns in a market where 21 airplanes is a big deal.”
Alenia’s tough stance brings Canada back to the competitive terms outlined in last year’s amended SOR, under which new C-27’s remain a favored option.  Australia’s FMS request for ten C-27Js, with an anticipated value of C$946 million, includes 23 Rolls-Royce AE2100D2 engines, communications systems, self-defence equipment, Northrop's APN-241 Tactical Transport Radar offering a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar-mapping mode, and an unspecified simulator package. 

Significantly for this contest, the C-27J offers no Canadian content, which could prove problematic with parliament and the public.

Figure 1:  FWSAR Comparison
    C-27J   DHC-5NG   C-295 Q400 HC-130J
Wing span 94' 2" 96' 0" 84' 8" 93' 3" 132' 7"
Overall length 74' 6" 79' 0" 80' 4" 107' 9" 97' 9"
Overall height 34' 8" 28' 8" 28' 5" 27' 5" 38' 9"
Cabin length 28' 1" 31' 5" 41' 8" 61' 8" 40' 0"
Cabin width 8' 0" 8' 9" 8' 10" 6' 8" 9' 9"
Cabin height 7' 4" 6' 10" 6' 10" 6' 5" 9' 0"
Operating Weight Empty  [lbs] 37,480 24,000 24,251 39,284 89,000
Max Take Off Weight [lbs] 70,106 49,200 51,150 65,200 164,000
Max Payload [lbs] 19,842 *18,000+ 20,400 18,716 35,000
Maximum speed [knots] 325 *300+ 311 360 360
Range [nm] 2,300 *600+ 2,430 1,500-3,000 3,480



The Spanish-manufactured CASA C-295.

Reuters photo RTR1W746

The Spanish-manufactured CASA C-295.


Until now, the EADS CASA C-295 was considered the main FWSAR rival to the C-27J, as it has been in numerous hard-fought airlift competitions around the world.  As such, comparative differences between the two aircraft are well known, if subject to distortion and ‘spin’ by rival camps. A March 2012 comparison of the two by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)1 highlights that the C-295 is cheaper to procure and operate, and has a longer, more flexible cabin. The ASPI report recognizes that the C-295 is around 15 percent cheaper, equating to a per-unit ‘fly-away’ cost of C$30.4 million versus C$35.7 million for the C-27J, with C-295 lifecycle costs coming in below the Spartan, based upon a variety of factors. 

In contrast, the C-27J is faster and more maneuverable than the C-295, and is promoted by advocates as being a bit more rugged. That said, the Finnish Air Force routinely operates C-295s in extreme Arctic conditions, and several air forces have successfully employed them on operations in harsh, austere field environments such as Afghanistan, Chad/Sudan, and the Amazon. 
Along with its EADS CASA sister-ship, the CN-235, the C-295 boasts a proven record as a Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA) equipped with integrated radar, FLIR, and other sensors that correspond to Canadian FWSAR requirements. C-295 and CN-235 MPAs are in service with the US Coast Guard, Portugal, Mexico, Chile, Ireland, Colombia, Venezuela, Turkey, and Spain, while Brazil operates a trio of C-295s in the SAR role. In comparison, the C-27J has only been employed so far as a light airlifter, and has not benefitted from any sensor integration work.

Ultimately, the C-295’s proven record as an MSA and airlifter with lower procurement and operating costs overwhelm its single deficiency, slower cruise speed.  More to the point in this case, the C-295 has obvious and substantial Canadian content in the form of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127G engines.

BuffaloNext Generation (NG)

Beyond the emotional and political advantages of being ‘made in Canada,’ both Viking Air’s Buffalo Next Generation and a Bombardier/Field Aviation Q400 SAR make perfect sense, and they deserve to compete in a fair and open contest.

Legacy CC-115 Buffalos are highly regarded by SAR crews, and they have performed well in Western Canada. One drawback is that they are unpressurized, which may prove too difficult or too costly to correct in the NG. Being unable to pressurize reduces efficiency at higher altitudes, and limits the ability to avoid bad weather, such as icing and thunderstorms. Short range is another issue, which may not be appreciably improved in the NG. Otherwise, the Buffalo NG is competitive with the C-27J and C-295 in terms of anticipated performance and cabin size.

However, great unknowns for the NG are actual performance, since none have been built yet, and how long the development, testing, and certification process would take, leaving some doubt as to whether the type could enter service by 2016. In 2009, Viking Air VP for Business Development Rob Mauracher told the American publication Aviation Week that two years would be required to develop and certify a “Technology Demonstrator” Buffalo NG, followed by three years to upgrade existing CC-115s to NG standard, or to establish a new production assembly line. 

Therefore, based upon a 2013 contract, the best-case scenario for Buffalo NG IOC is 2018. ‘On the plus side,’ in the same article, Mauracher claims the procurement and lifecycle costs of the NG would be 40 percent less than for a comparable number of C-27Js.

An artistís conception of the Field Aviation P/Q 400 SAR.

Field Aviation (Challe Design)

An artist’s conception of the Field Aviation P/Q 400 SAR.

Q400 SAR 

A Bombardier/Field Aviation Q400-based SAR platform, promoted under the trademarked designation P-400 by Field, is clearly the optimum Canadian solution in terms of cost, performance, capability, and maturity. Joar Gronlund, the Non-Executive Director of Field Aviation in Ontario is confident that fully equipped Q400 SAR aircraft could be in service by 2015 or 2016, based upon Field’s extensive experience modifying similarly-configured Dash 8 MSAs, the Q400 being a more advanced derivative of the Dash 8FWSAR Q400s could be completed from new production airframes directly off the Bombardier line, or from available low-time second-hand aircraft. 

The Q400 is as fast as a Hercules, and faster than all the other competitors. Its cabin is significantly longer and more flexible than the C-27J, offering ample space for sensor work station(s), an intensive care medevac station, equipment stowage, and an in-flight rigging area for Rescue Technicians, plus standard airline seating for around 12 passengers. Optional conformal fuselage tanks carrying an extra 10,000 lbs of fuel would double the aircraft’s range to 3000 nautical miles, surpassing the C-295/C-27J, with minimal effects upon overall performance.

According to Joar Gronlund, the Q400 SAR would have two large air-operable doors, one for personnel parachute operations - both static line and free fall, and one for equipment drops. Field has installed, tested, and certified similar in-flight opening doors on Dash 8 MSAs delivered to Sweden, Iceland, and Australia. Importantly, Field Aviation has extensive experience integrating FWSAR compatible sensors in Dash 8 MSAs, including Elta and Raytheon belly-mounted search radars, and FLIR turrets mounted under the nose of the aircraft. 

HC-130J Combat King

While Lockheed Martin reportedly has a standing offer of short-fuselage C-130J Hercules transports to the CF, higher procurement and operating costs, compared to the highly capable and less costly alternatives discussed above, probably make this an unrealistic option for the domestic SAR mission only. However, the RCAF also requires new Hercules for a broad range of missions that collaterally include domestic SAR in the middle regions of the country. Requirements include replacing CC-130H(T) aerial refueling tanker transports at Winnipeg, and establishing a Fixed Wing Special Operations capability at Trenton. Both can be relatively economically achieved by retiring/selling all remaining H-model Hercules (6x CC-130H, 4-5x CC-130H(T) tankers, 2 x CC-130H-30) and replacing them with ten new J-models, based upon the HC-130J Combat King SAR Hercules, which has a unit cost of C$ 65.8 million, according to the USAF.      
The HC-130J is replacing elderly HC-130P/Ns as the only dedicated FWSAR platform in the USAF. It is an extended-range version of the C-130J that can rapidly deploy to a domestic SAR scene or around the world to conduct Combat SAR, Special Operations and aerial refueling missions.  It can operate from austere airfields in all weathers to perform airdrops of personnel and bundles, tactical airlanding operations, helicopter and fast jet aerial refueling, and forward area ground refueling. Other roles include humanitarian assistance, disaster response, emergency aeromedical evacuation, and environmental response. 

The HC-130J has advanced navigation, threat detection, and countermeasures systems, and it is night vision goggle (NVG) compatible. Mission systems include the AN/APN-241 Tactical Transport Radar, an AAQ-22 Star Safire III electro-optical/infrared sensor, radar and missile warning receivers, chaff and flare dispensers, and secure satellite and data-burst communications.

For the Special Operations/CSAR role, the HC-130J is optimized to fly at night at low-to-medium altitudes in contested or sensitive environments, over land or water. Aerial delivery options include personnel parachute and equipment drops, and, in common with all the other FWSAR candidates, the HC-130J can deliver rescue bundles, illumination flares, marker smoke, and raft/survival kits.

Like the current force of CC-130H(T) Hercules tankers, the HC-130J can refuel RCAF CF-18 Hornets and next-generation CF-35A Lightning II fighters equipped with hose-and-drogue refueling probes. Helicopter aerial refueling can be conducted at night for up to two helicopters simultaneously. While the CF currently have no helicopters capable of aerial refueling, this is certain to change. Some of the new CH-147F Chinooks scheduled for delivery from this year forward are expected to gain the capability in order to support Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Arctic operations. Further, with the delivery of five HC-130Js, a re-designated 424 Special Operations Transport and Rescue Squadron at Trenton could exchange its CH-146 Griffon helicopters for six SOF/CSAR optimized CH-148 ‘Commando’ Cyclones with aerial refueling probes.2 

While operating as an air component of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) alongside Griffon-equipped 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, 424 would continue to provide domestic SAR coverage in Central Canada, from the Great Lakes to the Arctic. Similarly, in addition to its primary ‘fast jet tanker’ and airlift roles, 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron at Winnipeg would continue to provide SAR response from the US border to the North Pole. 
An important capability offered by the HC-130J is providing ground-based Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP) capability for Griffon, Chinook, Cyclone and Cormorant helicopters operating from austere forward airstrips in the Arctic, or in overseas operational areas. This extends the range and endurance of helicopters in support of all manner of missions, from domestic SAR and disaster relief, to overseas Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and CSAR/SOF operations. Using a ‘roll-on/roll-off’ cabin tank system, they could also spray dispersants following an oil spill, or deliver slurry as emergency fire bombers.


Figure 2:  RCAF FWSAR Plus Squadrons

442 Rescue and Patrol Squadron
CFB Comox
5x CP-400 FWSAR, 5x CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters

435 Transport and Rescue Squadron
CFB Winnipeg
5x CC-130J(T)

424 Special Operations Transport and Rescue Squadron
CFB Trenton
5x CC-130J(SO), 6x CH-148(SO) ‘Commando Cyclone’ helicopters

413 Rescue and Patrol Squadron
CFB Greenwood
5x CP-400 FWSAR, 5x CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters


Now What?

A DND-led Government procurement process will ultimately select a winner and negotiate a contract that may incorporate some or all of the FWSAR Plus concepts and solutions outlined herein. The more likely outcome is that after a grudging and a perfunctory examination of the alternatives, the process will produce the expected winner, leading to a contract for 15 Alenia C-27J light airlifters that will expend the entire FWSAR budget of C$1.55 Billion, leaving nothing left over for initiatives to enhance capabilities to perform both domestic SAR and a range of other missions. 

A CC-115 Buffalo in a banked turn near Comox, British Columbia.

DND photo (CFJIC) CX2005-0096-372a

A CC-115 Buffalo in a banked turn near Comox, British Columbia.

When these new yellow and red light tactical airlifters finally enter service, they will undoubtedly be a vast improvement over the old Buffalos and Hercules they replace, but an opportunity will have been lost to obtain a lot more capability by seeking flexible and original solutions that collaterally take advantage of Canada’s world-class aerospace industry. The legacy Hercules fleet will still need replacement sometime during this decade, even as support for ‘big ticket’ defence spending withers in the face of outlays for shipbuilding and for the F-35. As legacy ‘Hercs’ fade away, the C-27J fleet will increasingly have to ‘pick up the slack,’ performing airlift and Arctic support missions, possibly even SOF support. However, 15 Spartans will not be able to match the broad range of FWSAR Plus capabilities provided by a combination of ten fully equipped CP-400 dedicated SAR/surveillance/Arctic support aircraft, and ten new CC-130J(T/SO) tanker/SOF/CSAR transports.
Jim Dorschner is a Special Correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly and the Shephard Media Group of defence publications. He is a retired US Army lieutenant colonel with 24 years of service roughly divided between aerial ISR operations, and, from 1991, service as an intelligence officer with Special Forces and Special Operations Forces.

An artistís conception of the Boeing V-22 Osprey in SAR livery. Could this be a contender? [Ed.]

© Boeing

An artist’s conception of the Boeing V-22 Osprey in SAR livery. Could this be a contender? [Ed.]


  1. Delivering the Goods: the ADF’s Future Battlefield Airlifter, by Tom Savage and Andrew Davies, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 22 March 2012.

  2. “Instructions Not Included,” by Jim Dorschner, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2009.