Military dealing with gap in search and rescue services due to procurement delay

While the military’s new Kingfisher search-and rescue planes, a model of which is pictured here, won’t be ready for another three years, two aircraft from Winnipeg are being deployed to the Canadian Forces Base Comox on Vancouver Island to help address a gap in search-and-rescue coverage. (Airbus/Handout)

The Royal Canadian Air Force is relocating two aircraft from Winnipeg, Man. to Vancouver Island, B.C. to address a gap in Canada’s search and rescue coverage, the result of yet another delay in Canada’s troubled military procurement system.

Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger laid out the plan to base two Hercules aircraft at Canadian Forces Base Comox as officials revealed the military’s new Kingfisher search and rescue planes won’t be ready for another three years.

The delay combined with the retirement in January of the military’s last six ancient Buffalo aircraft has left the military without enough planes 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 address the resulting gap until the Kingfishers are ready, Meinzinger acknowledged the move will impact the squadron’s other tasks.Military search and rescue personnel often use specialized airplanes and helicopters to parachute or rappel into remote areas, such as mountains, the High Arctic or one of Canada’s three oceans to respond to plane crashes and sinking ships.

Following more than 15 years of controversy and start-stop effort to buy replacements for the Buffalo and older-model Hercules aircraft used to save Canadians every year, Canada announced in 2016 that it was buying 16 Kingfishers for $2.75 billion after tax.

The deal with European aerospace giant Airbus originally said the aircraft would be operational by 2020. But technical issues and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the schedule back to 2022, while the total cost has increased to $2.9 billion.

While acknowledging the Kingfishers’ delay will stretch the Air Force, Meinzinger added: “We cannot and we’re not going to rush the aircraft. … So it’s about doing that critical work to ensure the aircraft and the people are ready.”