The Royal Canadian Air Force is moving two aircraft from Winnipeg, Manitoba. to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to fill a gap in Canada’s search and rescue coverage, the result of another backlog in Canada’s ailing military supply system.
Commander of the Air Force, Lt. Gen. Al Meinzinger outlined the plan to base two Hercules planes at Canadian Forces Base Comox as officials revealed the army’s new Kingfisher search and rescue planes would not be ready for three years.
The delay combined with the January retirement of the Army’s last six ex-Buffalo aircraft has left the Army without enough aircraft to properly respond to emergencies on Canada’s west coast.
While the redeployment of two of the four Hercules aircraft currently in Winnipeg will help bridge the resulting gap until the Kingfishers are ready, Meinzinger acknowledged the move will impact the squadron’s other duties.
These include air-to-air refueling of fighter jets tasked with defending North American airspace from Russian bombers and other threats, and transporting troops and equipment across Canada and around the world.
“As we sit today, obviously they have an additional line of duty,” Al Meinzinger said in an interview. “So it will, logically, decrease their ability to perform other tasks.”
Growing discrepancies on fighter jets and frigates
The Canadian Armed Forces face a growing number of shortfalls as the military supply system struggles to deliver new equipment before existing equipment is decommissioned or decommissioned.
Aside from the Buffaloes, the Army was forced to retire several old Navy ships before replacements were ready. Time is also running out for its CF-18 jet fighters and Halifax-class frigates, both of which have already exceeded their expected lifespans.
The government receives about 10,000 distress calls a year, and while most are handled by the provinces or territories, with police and volunteers tasked with responding, the military responds to about 750 of the highest-risk calls. .
Military search and rescue personnel often use specialized planes and helicopters to parachute or rappel into remote areas, such as the mountains, the High Arctic or one of Canada’s three oceans, to respond to aircraft crashes and shipwrecks.
After more than 15 years of controversy and relentless efforts to buy replacements for the Buffalo Hercules planes and older models used every year to save Canadians, Canada announced in 2016 that it was buying 16 Kingfishers for $2.75 billion after tax.
The deal with European aerospace giant Airbus originally called for the plane to be operational by 2020. But technical issues and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the schedule back to 2022, while cost total rose to $2.9 billion.
The Defense Department’s chief procurement officer, Assistant Deputy Minister for Materiel Troy Crosby, attributed the latest delay to ongoing testing to ensure the plane performs as expected. Airbus is also working on appropriate manuals for the aircraft, he added.
While the Kingfisher is based on the Airbus C-295 military transport used by more than a dozen countries around the world, the version Canada is buying includes about 30 modifications to the basic design.
Some of these changes were necessary to meet mandatory Air Force requirements, Crosby said, while others were optional and added by Airbus in an apparent effort to improve its offering.
Supply, a “complex activity”
Concerns about over-promising and under-delivering companies have been raised with other military purchases, including Sikorsky-built Cyclone maritime helicopters.
While Cyclones are now in use on Halifax-class frigates after more than a decade of problems and development delays, software glitches and tail cracks have led to a number of incidents, including a fatal accident in April 2020.
Crosby defended the process of evaluating government bids for new Armed Forces equipment, describing it as a “complex undertaking” given the nature of the technology and equipment and how it must interact with other other military systems.
“When we went to sign the contract in 2016, we had assessed the risk of sticking to the schedule,” he added. “And we have mitigation strategies in place to try to minimize that risk. It turns out that the mitigation strategies weren’t enough.”
At the same time, he said the federal government is withholding some of the money owed to Airbus until the company delivers on its promises. Crosby would not say whether legal action was being considered or underway.
Airbus spokeswoman Annabelle Duchesne said in a statement Wednesday that the company is “fully committed to improving the situation” and that work is underway to ensure as little impact as possible on research services and Lifesaving Canada.
While acknowledging that the Kingfisher’s delay will strain the Air Force, Meinzinger added, “We can’t and we won’t rush the plane. … So it’s a matter of doing this critical job to make sure the plane and the people are ready.”