After more than six years of delays, the federal cabinet is expected give approval this week to open a project office to buy new fixed-wing search and rescue planes, according to senior federal officials.

It is the first step in getting the stalled, nearly decade-old program to replace C-115 Buffalos and older model C-130-H transport aircraft.

The $3.1 billion replacement plan has been mired in controversy and bureaucratic in-fighting almost since it was announced by the Martin government -- obstacles that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has yet to overcome.

Potential bidders were informed a couple of weeks ago that a formal tender call is not expected until next year and there will be more industry consultation.

In remarks behind closed doors Tuesday to several hundred members of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, Lieutenant-General Andr√© Deschamps, the head of Canada's air force, confirmed the purchase was finally moving forward.

"I am confident we have worked through some process issues to make things right," Deschamps said. "We expect to hold another industry day soon to outline the way ahead for this vital procurement."

Part of the delay has involved accusations that the air force had rigged initial specifications to favour one aircraft -- the C-27-J Spartan, built by the Italian company Alenia.

The air force was accused of setting strict requirements for the new planes that excluded all but this one contender.  Last year, those requirements were sent to the National Research Council for review. The NRC said the air force ought to ease up on its requirements, so more planes could compete.

Second-hand option

The U.S. Air Force recently announced it intended to sell its fleet of Spartan transports, both existing and soon-to-be-delivered.

It's part of a cost-cutting move, but it has yet to receive Congressional approval.

Senior defence officials say they intend to ask Washington how much it wants for the planes, but took pains to emphasize that there will be an open competition.

One official, who asked for anonynimity, said the query would be part of the necessary due diligence that auditor general would expect of both National Defence and Public Works.

Other aircraft-makers are champing at the bit, including Lockheed Martin, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company and Bombardier Inc., among others.

Air force officials have said once formal proposals are received next year, there will be further review against the air force's "criteria for mission success."

with files from James Cudmore