FWSAR: Defending the SOR

It was with some concern that I read the “Sorry Saga of FWSAR” article in Frontline Defence, issue 2, 2013. While agreeing that it’s been a sorry saga, I most certainly don’t agree that the project’s Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) was written to exclude all but the C27J Spartan. Having led the FWSAR project for 3½ years (2002 to 2005), I’m more than familiar with how the SOR progressed to approval. And I’m more than happy to share.

The Director of Air Requirements (DAR) holds prime responsibility for writing Air Force SORs. As leader of the Air Mobility Project Management Office, I reported to ADM (Material). As a pilot, I had served in DAR several times before joining the AM PMO. Given that FWSAR is a Major Crown project, the PMO was required to work very closely with DAR (my office was 50 feet from theirs). Additionally, we had a robust procurement staff from PWGSC working hand-in-hand on the project. They were certainly given the opportunity to review SORs as they ­progressed.

The story really begins with a meeting I attended in April 2003. At that point I’d been Project Manager of Future Strategic Airlift (FSA) for two and a half years. During this meeting, the Defence Minister of the day declared the FSA project dead. He then directed us to fast-track the FWSAR project, which was intended to replace the soon-to-retire (we believed) Buffalo and Hercules FWSAR aircraft. We saluted and got to work. Step 1: develop and achieve approval of the FWSAR SOR.

Well, this shouldn’t be too hard. First we’ll look at the current set of FWSAR “level of service” agreements between the Government of Canada and DND, and then craft the SOR based on those. To our disappointment, no agreements of any detail existed. As such, we were going to have to create the first comprehensive Canadian FWSAR “level of service” description for our SOR. This was not going to be easy, and it wasn’t.

By 2003, the DND FWSAR service had morphed into its current state through years of evolution using a broad range of aircraft; no aircraft had ever been procured with FWSAR in mind. FWSAR was composed of four bases, with six CC115 Buffalos in Comox and 10 CC130 Hercules in Winnipeg, Trenton and Greenwood.

For the Canadian Forces, our SAR area of responsibility stretched from the middle of the Atlantic to 145° west in the Pacific, and to the North Pole – an area roughly 7,900 kms by 5,400 kms. This vast geographic area presents a huge challenge to SAR with a widely diverse climate, the longest coast line in the world, and a very widely dispersed base of aviation and marine related activity. The vast majority of this area was covered by the Hercules, while the mountainous western region and close-in Pacific reaches was covered by the ­Buffalo’s ability to search safely in narrow mountain valleys. The Hercules also ­covered the Pacific areas that lay beyond the range of the Buffalo.

To be clear, the Government of the day and people of Canada were very happy with the service provided, and it was viewed as “world class”. Keep in mind that roughly 85% of the service was provided by the Hercules – a 300 knot, long range, large fuselage aircraft capable of the para-delivery of SAR equipment. This would not be an easy capability to replace for the funding we had available.

As we progressed, our prime directive was to maintain our current level of FWSAR service to Canadians, especially since we were about to spend roughly $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money. To complete the project with a reduced “level of service” would have been irresponsible. So, with this in mind, DAR, with assistance of the PMO and many others, began the difficult task of crafting a minimum FWSAR “level of service” for the SOR.

Without going into the gritty details, the criteria in the first SOR was developed through a painstaking process with consultation on a wide scale. Most of it had to do with a strict set of parameters based on crew day length, Canadian geography, response times, immediate assistance to be rendered to those in need, and an existing four-base structure (we didn’t have nearly the funding to stand up new facilities). Numerous meetings, conferences and consultations were undertaken. Over the next year, the first version of the SOR was put into the complicated approval process.

Back then, the governing body of Army, Air Force and Navy requirements approval was the Joint Capability Requirements Board (JCRB), chaired by the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS). All Group Principals (one step below the Deputy Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff) were invited, including ADM(Mat). Once all were satisfied, the SOR would receive endorsement, then proceed to the VCDS (not the Minister) for approval.

Before any SOR reached the JCRB, copies of it were forwarded to each Group Principal’s staff for analysis. At this stage the document would be thoroughly combed over by roughly two dozen independent staffs for any nefarious influences or miscalculations. And let me assure you, of the two dozen or so DND organizations picking over the SOR, none of them would have had any interest in allowing a flawed SOR to pass through their filter. To say the least, this was (and is) a very thorough and effective process.

Speaking of the SOR as a document, SORs are forbidden to discuss solutions. They only describe the deficiency to be addressed. As it was, JCRB had a challenging time in finding the right phraseology and balance to describe the ­minimum FWSAR “level of service” that Canadians had come to expect. In fact, it took two visits to JCRB to garner their endorsement of the SOR and the “level of service” therein. They accepted that the complex criteria in the SOR were based solely on maintaining the current “level of service”. Period. And so it was, that after a thorough review process, the VCDS signed the FWSAR SOR.

As it stood at the end of the JCRB process, the capability could well be described as being somewhat less than would have been provided by a totally Hercules-equipped fleet, but definitely more than a Buffalo-equipped fleet would have provided. As such, it reflected the “level-of-service” that we were trying to ensure would be retained in the FWSAR project.

Of course, project staffs don’t go through all of this agony only to build a bridge to nowhere. Having looked around the global marketplace for “western certified aircraft”, we were sure we had more than one solution. In other words, we were confident we had a valid competition.

And so, with the SOR approved through a rigourous review process, we took our PMO on the road to Italy and Spain to gain exposure to what we considered our prime solutions. I eventually got to fly both aircraft: the EADS/CASA C295 and the Alenia C27J Spartan. Suffice it to say that we came home believing we had a valid competition. Then started the inter-departmental meetings dictated by the procurement process.

One of our first inter-departmental meetings involved representatives from all interested Departments. Up to this point, DND and PWGSC had been fully satisfied with our procurement documentation and philosophies. However, as discussions proceeded, we could see that other influences were being brought to bear that had no relation to providing FWSAR to the people of Canada.

That we would proceed with the project while lowering our current “level of service” was unthinkable to us. However, our inter-departmental friends had many other axes to grind, including a myriad of commercial considerations. I believe they were only doing their jobs, but these influences had a major effect on our progress.

Simply put, the inter-departmental anchor was dragged by the project for several more years until the project lost stream and others rose higher on the priority list. What everyone thought was going to be a relatively quick process turned into a grinding marathon. Hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the project’s staff were told to ‘get on with it’. But therein lay the start of the true “sorry saga of FWSAR”.

I’m hopeful that the latest FWSAR SOR will by-and-large maintain the “level of service” as originally approved by JCRB. With that, and some light appearing at the end of the FWSAR procurement tunnel, we can only hope for some progress soon.

Colonel (retired) Pat Dowsett was the Project Manager PMO Air Mobility, 2000 to 2005.
© FrontLine Defence 2013