Monday, September 12, 2016

Two Fleets for FWSAR: Specialization can be more Cost-Effective

Written by Canadian American Strategic Review — Editorial

The Royal Canadian Air Force ( RCAF ) has held primary responsibility for aerial search and rescue (SAR) over Canada and its territorial waters since 1947. [1] Initially, the dedicated SAR aircraft fleet consisted of patrol aircraft for search (large, four- engined Avro Lancaster Mk.10 SRs ) and flying boats for rescue (the Canadian-made Canso and, later, Grumman Albatrossamphibians). [2]

Helicopters joined these fixed-wing SAR aircraft as rotary-wing technology matured. By the 1970s, Canada's fixed-wing search and rescue fleet had devolved into an ad hoc collection of old tactical transport aircraft – CC-130 Herculesand CC-115 Buffalo STOL transports (which lacked a role). [3]

Fast-forward to 2004 and DND's Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) Project presented no real advance over the 1970s approach. Those ad hoc tactical transport aircraft were to be replaced by purpose-bought tactical transports, without questioning which type of aircraft actually suited the FWSAR role. This approach appealed to Air Force planners focused on bolstering the transport fleet. But, other than providing newer airframes, this procurement approach offered no real enhancement of the actual fixed-wing search and rescue capability.

After a 2010 external review by the National Research Council of the FWSAR Project, DND belatedly acknowledged that fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft might benefit from a more capable sensor than simply relying upon the human eye. [4] As a result, an infrared electro- optical turret was added to a revised FWSAR Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR).

The FWSAR Project has dragged on for a decade because, despite all of the proclamations, neither the Air Force nor the Government of Canada has ever made the FWSAR Project a genuine top priority. [5] This indifference may be, in part, because both bureaucracies know that completing the FWSAR Project will gain them very little in the end. Most of the current complaints about existing FWSAR aircraft relate to lengthy reaction times. But new FWSAR aircraft – still based on transport airframes – will make almost no difference to reaction times.

Idée fixe: Getting away from Fixed Ideas about the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project

In accordance with the Canadian SAR Manual, an RCAF SAR Major Operating Base (MOB) must have one FWSAR aircraft ready to respond to any emergency call at 30 minutes notice. New FWSAR aircraft would continue to fly out of these MOBs, which are situated far to the south. As a result, response times will be no quicker than before the arrival of new FWSAR aircraft – and transit times to Northern Canada almost as long and just as exhausting for the FWSAR aircraft flight crews. Potential solutions to this FWSAR conundrum emerge from re- examinating the way that the RCAF implemented the aerial SAR when first assigned the role.

As noted, in 1947, the RCAF separated 'Search' from the more complex 'Rescue' functions. Compared to today, SAR bases were more widely distributed. There were very few 'Regular' SAR squadrons. Most of the early RCAF FWSAR aircraft weren't assigned to squadrons at all. They belonged to small, regional 'Rescue Flights' and were flown by RCAF Reservists.

A survivor of that model is Yellowknife-based 440 Transport Squadron. Originally designated a Transport and Rescue Squadron, [6] 440 (T) began as 111 Search and Rescue Flight. Based further north than other RCAF squadrons, 440 members are a mix of Reservists and Regulars. 440's four CC-138Twin Otter aircraft are a tiny number to be designated a squadron, but quite typical for earlier RCAF Air Reserve 'Rescue Flights' – which often held only 3-to-5 aircraft.

'Fixed-Wing Surveillance and Response'? – Re-examining the RCAF's FWSAR Roles

In a modern context, having RCAF Reservists form the crew of 'Search' aircraft has multiple advantages. Currently, the RCAF has been forced to employ foreign pilots due to domestic recruiting constraints (civilians lacking prior military experience) and training budget limits.

With a different approach to FWSAR, this 'experienced pilot' recruiting problem can be side- stepped. Consider a dedicated 'Search' role within FWSAR. By adopting an airframe already in widespread Canadian commerical service, RCAF Reserve crews could be readily recruited. And the ideal airframe for search, surveillance, and monitoring is the Canadian-made Dash 8.

Earlier model Dash 8s (with their greater cruising economy) are operated by airlines throughout Canada – including in the Arctic ( with Air Inuit, Canadian North and Summit Air). [7] In contrast to finding pilots with military aircraft experience, recruiting suitable pilots to become Reservists to crew the 'Search' Dash 8would be comparatively easy. Recruits would have ties to home locations across Canada, with no incentive to stick to the established RCAF SAR MOBs in the south.

The advantages of recruiting Reservist flightdeck crews would also be true for 'spotters'. At present, volunteers from the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) often man the 'bubble' windows on the RCAF's FWSAR aircraft. That volunteer resource should not be abused, but it does show that civilians are quite capable of doing the 'spotter' job. And some of the CASARA volunteers might be highly motivated to serve in the RCAF Air Reserve. [8]

Also see: 'Search': The First Element in the FWSAR Project's Interim Solution

FWSAR Primary and Secondary Roles – Tactical Transport is as Tactical Transport does

The primary role for any FWSAR aircraft is SAR. But that has never been all that FWSAR aircraft do. The 'Search' Dash 8 described above is a surveillance platform specialized in the SAR role. However, sensors would allow it to perform a host of surveillance and monitoring roles when not required for SAR duty. What it wouldn't do is carry parachuting SAR Techs.

The 2010 NRC review reaffirmed the Air Force's choice of rear ramps for any FWSAR aircraft dropping SAR Techs. And 'rear ramp' means 'tactical transport aircraft'. The current FWSAR conundrum results, in part, from trying to squeeze some operating economies out of tactical transports. But it doesn't work. Tactical transport is a demanding role and few economies are to be found. The Air Force's attempted solution was to make their tactical transports smaller.

The outcome of the FWSAR project as planned would be unfamiliar new airframes with only marginally better operating economies than the Hercules. But separate 'Search' from 'Rescue' and a superior option appears. Relieved of the need to fly long search patterns, that 'Rescue' aircraft is already more economical. That allows other capabilities – like tactical transport and fleet commonality – to be made higher priorities for the FWSAR Project. Viewed in that light, the ideal 'Rescue' component of this two-role FWSAR approach would be another Hercules.

Also see: 'Rescue': The Second Element in the FWSAR Project's Interim Solution

[1] See online pdf, 'Canada Command SAR CONOPs' (or Concept of Operations) for details.

[2] Secondary responsibility for aerial SAR tended to fall on RCAF 'KU' or Composite Units. Many of the KUs flying utility transport aircraft would evolve into regional 'Rescue Flights'.

[3] The Buffalo had been designed as a short take-off and landing tactical transport. But the Canadian Air Force found little use for these rough-field specialists (outside Arctic supply).

[4] FWSAR now relies exclusively on human spotters augmented with night vision goggles and flares. The revised FWSAR SOR also included, under instruction from government, the consideration of 'Alternative Service Delivery' and to allow for more than one aircraft type.

[5] FWSAR as top priority was 2005 Conservative election promise. However, once elected, the Harper Tories shelved the FWSAR Project in favour of buying C-17 strategic transports.

[6] 440 TRS was redesignated a pure Transport squadron when moved from Edmonton up to Yellowknife in 1995. Despite their yellow paint, 440's Rescue markings were removed in 1999.

[7] Summit's Dash-8/Q100s first flew with Arctic Sunwest (which Summit took over in 2012).

[8] Remaining in one's home community is a recruiting advantage for the RCAF Air Reserve.