Defence Procurement

There is an interesting article in the Globe and Mail today, from the Canadian Press, about a report from the Global Affairs Institute which says that defence procurement is, yet again, stalled. The report blames:

  • “The revolving door in the defence minister’s office — and among the senior bureaucracy;” and
  • “The extraordinarily long election campaign.”

Now, some will wonder why it didn’t blame a cumbersome and highly politicized process. It didn’t because, in my opinion, those aren’t the main problems.

First: politicization. The process is political, it has been thus for hundreds of years, since, at the very least, the 16th century. It needs to be political; it is, after all, our money, your taxes and mine, that is being spent; we are entitled to have some say in how. Ever since the 16th century, when Charles Howard and John Hawkins were trying to get the English shipbuilding industry to build better, cheaper ships there was political interference from the politicians (in that case William Cecil, the Lord Treasurer) who wanted a better deal for the taxpayers.

A key point which we must all remember ~ especially retired military men ~ is that defence procurement is a civilian, political business in which one load of civilians, the mandarins, make recommendations to other civilians, the ministers in the cabinet, who, in their turn, take “guidance” from a third group of civilians: us, the people who elect them. The military has a role (actually two roles) in all this:

  • To provide expert technical advice; and
  • To make the best possible use of whatever their civilian masters decide is needed.

Does that mean that our admirals and generals should be “seen but not heard” in public? No … quite the contrary, in fact. Our military leaders, the admirals and generals should be informing all three important civilian groups:

  1. The officials who recommend budgets and manage contracts and so on;
  2. The ministers who decide; and, above all
  3. The general public ~ people like you and me ~ who elect the ministers.

In fact, the CDS and every service chief ought to have published, for general public information, a long term strategic plan that sets out why the CF is needed and what it will need to look like ~ people, equipment and resources ~ 10, 20 and even 35+ years in the future. Such strategy papers will, of necessity, be overly simple and unclassified and they have to be aimed at the general public, not just the academics and media pundits. If the public is on board if the general public understands the need for and the needs of the defence community then the ministers and officials will be on board. If the public doubts the needs ~ for and of ~ then nothing much will happen.

Second: complexity. The Canadian defence procurement system is complex, no doubt about it. It is cumbersome, with too many cooks spoiling the broth and whatever other analogies one might want to toss its way. It probably has to be complex, too … it is, always, trying to accomplish many different, often contradictory things. Of course, it is trying to buy what cabinet says DND needs … but it is also trying to spread (totally imaginary) regional industrial benefits around the country and to be a job creation programme and to satisfy industrial development goals, all the while remaining within the confines of the many a varied trade agreements to which we are a signatory.

original.1293There was a simple system, many years decades ago. The guy on the right, old CD Howe, ran it, and it was called The Department of Munitions and Supply and it was a simple, well managed, highly focused and hyper-effective organization ~ quite uncharacteristically so, being a government body. But the time was different; there was one, single overarching aim and efficiency and effectiveness could be made to trump politics. That’s not the case and wishing will not help.

The system need not be quite as complex as it is now, but we will not (we must hope) have to return to the Ministry of Munitions and Supply.

It is all very well for the new Liberal government to hide, for now, behind the excuses set forth in the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s study but staff turmoil is common in governments and so are elections.

One problem was that the Harper government couldn’t or wouldn’t push the bureaucracy in a defined, coherent direction. My guess is that Prime Minister Harper did want to rebuild DND and the CF but I think he concluded, when his MND ~ in my opinion, a captive of his military chiefs ~ ignored his directive to make DND, especially the CF, more efficient and effective, that the military, itself, was happier playing Mister Dressup with new rank badges than it was on building a 21st-century fighting force …

When the MND is tough and efficient, in his own right, then he can and will make things happen … Gordon O’Connor, for example, wasn’t popular in his department nor, as far as my reading says, with his cabinet and caucus colleagues, but he got new C-17 Globemaster and C-130  Hercules trasports, new Chinook Helicopters, and new Leopard II tanks, too.

He didn’t always demand, from his cabinet colleagues, what his military chiefs wanted nor what senior officials thought was necessary but he managed to get what the CF really needed … in double-quick time. The system was complex then, as it is now, but it could be “managed.”

So let us not, Conservatives, blame the new government, including the new defence minister, for the politicization of the defence procurement process, it is part and parcel of the nature of the beast. Equally let’s not blame them, too soon, for issues of complexity that we helped to create ~ especially a too large, badly organized command and control superstructure in the Canadian Forces. But let’s not sit on our hands, either … some decisions need to be made sooner, rather than later and we should not feel shy about offering good ideas.

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