Andrew Coyne wrote a good column in the National Post almost 18 months ago dealing with defence procurement, a topic I have also dealt with a few weeks ago. But it is always a hot topic over on Army.ca, where procurement problems have a very direct impact on the sailors, soldiers and air force members who participate there; and it has been for over 10 years.
Mr Coyne listed a long sad series of what he called bungles:
- The Sea King replacement;
- Victoria class submarines;
- Fixed Wing Search and Rescue aircraft;
- F-35; and
- New ships.
It is a pretty sad list, equally sad, it is still current, and it features only the great big ticket, public relations disaster type of projects. It doesn’t include the fact ~ and it is a fact ~ that the Canadian Forces cannot, for example, manage to get boots (Arctic mukluks or temperate boots), or combat trousers for its soldiers or spare parts for its own logistics vehicles.
Now, boots and spare parts do not make sexy headlines but the fact that they are in short supply is indicative
of a broken system of several broken systems.
The problem is not politicization; as I mentioned before the process needs to be political because it is our money that is being spent and we need to hold someone to account for how it is spent. In fact, the process might suffer from a lack of political involvement. That soldiers do not have boots or combat trousers and that the trucks that would be needed to carry them around if there were some are grounded due to lack of parts, however, speaks to failures in management and organization for which the Minister of National Defence is responsible and should answer for, and should have answered for when they were Conservatives, in parliament.
That is something else with which I have also dealt, before (albeit parenthetically, in the second part of that “Communicating” post): we don’t need to have Assistant Deputy Ministers and commodores and generals answering (often poorly researched) questions in committee meetings; we need (well researched) questions to be asked of, and we deserve them to be answered by the minister in the House of Commons. Maybe the question needs, in fact, to be addressed to Justin Trudeau (and maybe it should have been asked of Stephen Harper): how can you tolerate such an inefficient and wasteful mish-mash of overlapping responsibilities that, de facto, it ends up meaning that no-one is responsible for anything much and everyone just points fingers at the other people in the other departments? It ought to be intolerable but national defence is such a low priority for Canadian political leaders because it is a such a low priority for Canadians. Canadians may be out there in their thousands wearing red t-shirts, but while support for the troops is often a mile wide, it is almost never more than an inch deep, if that. But, maybe, if a few politicians cared enough, just out of a higher sense of duty towards their country, then the questions might have been asked in 2014 and 2015 and might get asked in 2016.
There are three aspects to the problem, from where I sit:
- Management; and
Money is, of course, always an issue. If there is too little money then there will not be, cannot be boots or spare parts or new ships. But we know that DND turns money back, unspent, each year ~ as do many (most?) government departments, so I think the problem is not entirely or even mostly lack of money.
When “systems” ~ a new ship, or a new aircraft, a new tank or just new uniforms ~ are purchased something called “initial provisioning” is done: that means that enough spare parts and “logistical stocks” (extra stuff to replace damaged, lost or broken items) is purchased, enough for some defined period (it was the first 27 months when I was involved, many years ago) so that the “bins” will be full while the logistical system gets geared up. If that is not done or if there is not a good, solid system to mange the maintenance and support of systems throughout their life cycle, from acquisition and initial provisioning through to disposal at the end of system’s useful life, then you will have problems ~ just the sorts of problems we see right now. The problems are often caused because there are not enough people, or not enough of the right people ~ “too many chiefs, not enough indians” ~ in the very, very unglamorous supply and maintenance jobs. When there are problems in recruiting the “support” jobs too often take second or third place. It is not wrong to say, based on the endless series of problems in procurement, alone, that the whole of the Department of National Defence management structure, not just the military C² superstructure, is in need of a major review (audit?), from the Deputy Minister and Chief of Defence Staff down through every management level right down to the clerks and drivers.
Even if DND’s management system and the Canadian Armed Forces’ C² superstructure are good, and I am convinced that both are in need of reform, then there is still a problem of getting people to do the unglamorous work. Motivating people is part of good leadership and it needs to start with the minister, him or herself, and the deputy and the Chief of the Defence Staff who all have to demonstrate to the supply depot clerks and to the truck drivers and to the people handing out the boots and trousers on the bases that they are valuable and valued members of the team … and ditto for the bureaucrats in their “cubicle hells” in various headquarters. The money can be there, the system can be efficient but if the people in it are not willing, even enthusiastic “partners” in that system then the boots and trousers and spare parts will remain unordered and the soldiers will do without.
But, even though I assert that the system must be political, there is some harmful politics involved.
Now, as other Postmedia journalists have pointed out, much more recently, it is possible for a country, Australia is used as a model, to have defence procurement systems in which defence is actually a fairly high priority consideration. That is, too often, indeed most often not the case in Canada, and that is an unfortunate aspect of (the necessary) politicization. The Sea King replacement is, of course, the classic case in point. Jean Chrétien had absolutely no concern, none at all, for the legitimate needs of the Navy nor, in fact, for the good of the country and for its security. he was interested only in scoring cheap political points … it’s the kind of politician and person he was. He interfered in an important military procurement file for nothing except partisan political gain. He cared nothing, in 1993, for the lives of the crews flying the then ancient Sea Kings nor for the safety of the ships in which they are (still) embarked. It was a horrible example of bad policy be made by a cheap, ward heeling politician on the fly. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien earned and richly deserves the everlasting contempt of every thinking Canadian that day … but from that experience we can affirm that not enough Canadians ever think about their national defence because he went on to win that election and two more, which takes me back to my “mile wide but only an inch deep” point.
The other political thing wrong with our defence procurement system is that there are to many top level cooks spoiling the broth. These create the systemic problems I mentioned.
First of all there are no such things as “free” regional industrial benefits. You may rest assured that companies like Dassault, General Dynamics, Irving Shipbuilding, Lockheed Martin and SeaSpan do not give anything away for free. If there is any regional industrial “benefit” then you can be 100% sure that you paid for it, with your tax dollars, as part of the contract cost … and you probably paid about 110% of its value, too. Politicians who spout nonsense about regional industrial benefits are either fools or liars and, in my experience, very few politicians are fools. Much of what the Industry Department, therefore, brings to the defence procurement process is wasted effort: political smoke and mirrors. The relationships between National Defence, Treasury Board and Public Services and Procurement Canada are, simultaneously, too close and too distant. There need to be very clear delineations of both authority and responsibility amongst and between all departments and agencies throughout the procurement process, every step of the way. Overlaps must be found eliminated and, equally, gaps must be filled. Departments need to cooperate for a common good, not compete to win petty, bureaucratic turf wars.
Second: there is, correctly, in my opinion, considerable skepticism about the ability of the admirals and generals to properly define their needs and provide reasonable initial cost estimates. Admirals and generals have been accused of writing their operational requirements around a specific product, for example. I did not see that happen when I was near that process, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t or doesn’t happen. If it does happen then it is problem for the CDS to sort out. But the problem gets worse when Treasury Board, Industry Canada or Public Services and Procurement Canada decide that they, not the naval, general and air staffs are best able to decide what the military’s operational requirements are. It, buying this new ship or that new airplane, is, of course, a government (cabinet) decision, and officials have a right and duty to advise their ministers when they think the Minister of National Defence is being poorly advised by his officials or by the admirals and generals ~ but in private, in SECRET, even, because discussions about what capabilities Canada needs or doesn’t need is a real security concern.
Finally, there is a problem of defining and explaining costs. What is the capital cost of an airplane? That “fly away” cost? What about the cost over its whole (30ish year) life cycle? Should the cost of retraining people be part of a project cost or is it already factored in to DND’s day-t-day operations? Mixed cost reporting system confuse Canadians and create doubts about the viability, and even the necessity of projects. This part of the problem also crosses inter-departmental boundaries.
This ~ making the “machinery of government” work properly, for Canadians ~ is the business, the duty, of the prime minister and, especially, his privy council office. But PCO tends to focus on the prime minister’s higher priorities and, as far as I can see, defence procurement is not one of them.
So, what can Prime Minister Justin Trudeau do. Make the Three Ms (money, management, motivation) work … he has both the authority and the power, and he’s the only one who has them, and he can, also, take some of the politics out of the process.
I doubt it.
It will, likely, be a task for the next, Conservative, prime minister.