To buy or not to buy . . . that is the FWSAR question! by Andy Akrouche

In a recent presentation I gave to a senior government management team I was introducing what I believed to be an innovative yet practical approach relating to cross agency collaboration.

While there seemed to be no disagreement as to the merits of what I was presenting, the inevitable first questions were not unexpectedly centered on what I call the “let Mikey try it first” mindset.  Specifically, where has this be done previously, did it work and, what were the results?

On the surface, they are reasonable questions.  However, it is not so much the actual asking of the questions themselves, but the reasons behind their being asked that leads one to wonder if we Canadians have lost the ability to think and the ingenuity to innovate without the tacit approval garnered through the previous experience of other governments such as the United States, UK, Australia or New Zealand.  Logic and overwhelming evidence to the contrary we have for all intents and purposes become fixed on an innovative entry strategy of between fourth and second in.

Speaking of being fixed, let’s examine more closely the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project.

In its 8th year, the project to purchase new aircraft to replace our aging CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130 legacy Hercules aircraft is reminiscent of the number of years that have passed since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won Lord Stanley’s Cup or for you movie buffs, the 31 years that the animated film “The Thief and the Cobbler” was in production before it was finally released.

FWSAR image2

A CC-115 Buffalo on training maneuvers

Okay, the examples may be somewhat extreme in terms of actual time, but the point is pretty clear . . . why is it taking so long to replace rapidly aging equipment?

Perhaps this is the reason why the Canadian Government has created a secretariat to oversee the FWSAR procurement similar to what had been done for the shipbuilding program.  Although it is worth noting that in the latter instance, the framework for the shipbuilding project lacked critical relational elements that have plagued its progress from the get go.

Challenges notwithstanding, the FWSAR team is using its best efforts to select the replacement aircraft from an existing array of capable technologies   ̶   a summary of which is available on the following website; http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol12/no4/page58-eng.asp

Interestingly enough, and as reported by The Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese in his July 22nd article Team Spartan Finishes Cross-Country Partner Tour For Fixed Wing Search and Rescue, one of the manufacturers competing for the contract recently concluded a cross-country partner tour under the name of Team Spartan.  I am of course talking about the C-27J team who embarked on the tour with the “twofold objective” of gaining a better understanding of the aerospace and industrial capabilities of each Canadian region as they relate to Team Spartan’s FWSAR offering, and to identify new Canadian partners who match Team Spartan’s platform and Industrial Regional Benefits (IRB) needs.”

While the outcome of the tour was deemed to be generally positive, it still failed to answer what I consider to be the most important of questions; why do we want to own and operate the equipment in the first place?  Would it not make more sense to procure them as a service?

The idea is certainly not out of the realms of being a sound strategy worth pursuing.  In fact when I used the FWSAR project as a case study during my July 10th and 11th seminar in Toronto on Public-Private relationships, every senior executive in attendance indicated that they would pursue the outsourcing strategy as opposed to their owning, maintaining and operating these aircraft themselves.

After all, and being mindful of the importance of the “who’s done it first” viability test, the British not that long ago made the decision to outsource their SAR requirements to a third party (see Colin Cram’s July 24th article Outsourcing of UK Air/Sea Rescue).  This decision according to the Defense Industry Daily is part of a global trend toward public-private partnerships to perform some Coast Guard and SAR functions, including Australia’s billion-dollar Coastwatch program.

So what’s holding Canada back from becoming part of the above trend   ̶   or perhaps creative contracting evolution would be a better term?  The way I see it, there are many benefits relating to outsourcing our SAR operations including: 

  1. Gain a major step change in service coverage and quality that cannot be gained organically by means of evolution or incremental change.
  2. Manage fluctuation in demand for SAR services.
  3. No capital investment – relieves Canada from the task of having to decide what plane or combination of planes can do the job properly and from making huge capital investments and upgrades on an ongoing basis.  In essence, Canada will pay for the service at the quality levels it deems necessary at any time today and into the future.
  4. Under a relational procurement approach, the outsourcing option provides ongoing alignment with Canada’s needs versus the needs at a particular static point in time.
  5. Focus on core business – the business of SAR delivery management through relationships and not SAR delivery itself.

Once again, we have to stop and take advantage of this unintended 8 year pause to ask why we are continuing to go the buy route.

Even though I would not consider outsourcing the security and defence of our country, when it comes to non-military services, we owe it to ourselves to examine this option in an objective, forward looking manner.

I firmly believe that if we consider our goals and expected outcomes relating to SAR operations we will, like a growing number of other governments, come to the conclusion that a service based relationship with a private sector provider and partner will deliver a high quality service at a lower cost.

Further, and with the right outsourcing strategy we can create significantly more sustainable economic value in Canada when compared to the current options on the table.

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