Some things the Defence Review might consider (6): Defence Procurement

There is a cute cartoon floating about the internet which displays the very common military “view” of defence procurement …


… sailors and soldiers have, in general, lost faith in their government’s ability to give them the tools they ned in a timely fashion. This is not, given that “Doctrine Man” is a US social media thing, a uniquely Canadian perception.

I have complained, perhaps too often, about a defence procurement system that cannot even buy and issue boots to soldiers.

The first reaction of many lay people is: “run it like a business.” General Electric and Toyota, they note, don’t seem to have problems buying the tools they need in order to provide products and services to their customers. Why then should DND not be able to but, efficiently and effectively, what it needs to provide its product (combat capable, sustainable military forces) to its “customers:” the people of Canada?

The obvious answer is that defending the country is not a “business,” it is a highly political process of deciding what needs to be done, how much of that “need” is both affordable and politically popular, and then marrying up the money with suppliers and delivering the goods.

The political dimension of the system ~ as it exists pretty much throughout the Western world ~ is both a practical necessity and, in my opinion, healthy. Politicians bring a much needed “independent” review of defence decisions, based on their understanding of public opinion, and a useful level of skepticism to the “wish list” presented by admirals and generals, bureaucrats and pundits.

The problem with defence procurement, it seems to me, is process, more specifically processes, with the emphasis on the plural.

In Canada and, as far as I can see, in the USA, what should be a reasonably simple process has been bent out of shape as politicians, bureaucrats and military staffs all try to bend the system to suit their “needs.” In some countries, including Canada, the defence procurement process is too often a test of the relative bureaucratic “muscle” of DND, Industry Canada,  Public Works and Government Services (PWGSC), and the Treasury Board. Hint: the Treasury Board, being part of the “political and policy centre” in Ottawa usually wins.

Treasury Board (TB) issued a pretty good report comparing system amongst allies. It probably “whitewashes” Canada just a bit, but that’s understandable.

One aspect of the system that TB ignored is the problem of competition for scarce resources. People, politicians, bureaucrats and military officers often measure their perceived power in their own domains by the size of their budgets. When resources are scarce, as is usually the case in government, some people are likely to make poor decisions that seem to increase their own “power” rather then the good decisions which maximize the benefits for the greatest number. That is, in my opinion, a serious problem inside DND, between the Canadian Forces and the department, per se, and between DND and other departments.

The solution to that problem is clear guidance ~ in the form of a coherent defence “plan” ~ from cabinet. Some will argue that Australia has licked that problem: it has a costed, budgeted plan that actually assigns resources to capabilities. The problem, for Canada, and it’s a good problem to have, is that we are not Australia, we do not live in a dangerous part of the world far, far away from the our most powerful ally. Canada has the HUGE strategic advantage of sharing a continent with a great, friendly, trustworthy superpower. Our perception is that our defences are assured because the United States will not allow anyone to attack us. In my opinion most Canadians take this view, even if they never really think about it and that colours their perception of the need for a military and the need to fund a strong military. Politicians understand that and so they are reluctant to suggest increases to defence spending unless or until there is a threat that actually frightens Canadians into agreeing that they need to see to their own defences. Thus, we are very unlikely to emulate the Australian model. We will have to do without a clear strategic plan.

Another problem area is inside DND and, indeed, inside the Canadian Forces: there is no clear, coherent, military plan. Of course, absent clear direction from the cabinet it is hard for the Deputy Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff to make a real plan … hard, but far from impossible. The Navy has had just such a plan for years; the Army and RCAF and, indeed, the whole of the CAF could have something similar. The Deputy Minister could suggest some pretty reasonable policy guidance and a likely fiscal framework and, armed with those, the Chief of the Defence Staff could issue some broad guidance that would allow the chiefs of the naval, general and air staffs to set out “models” of achievable forces for the next 25ish years. Such a plan would not be perfect, but it would prevent instances of senior officers pushing their own pet projects even when there is not a validated need for them. Both DND and PWGSC have been accused of trying to “low ball” cost estimates in order to “push” projects that senior officers and officials favour. I have no idea if there is any truth in that but, the rumour is out there and it cannot be put back. It is symptomatic of a system that is not coherent and coordinated inside the CAF, inside DND and inside the government, below cabinet. An agreed, by officials and senior officers, “model” (with costs and capabilities) would prevent such accusations and when something is approved make it easier to deal with the Treasury Board.

I have already mentioned, more times that I care to count, that the C² structure in the Canadian Forces is badly bent out of shape. A poor C² structure means that time is wasted when unnecessary staff officers in redundant headquarters decide to interfere in the equipment requirements (definition) and procurement processes ~ just because they can and because they have nothing useful to do ~ and, thereby, slow the military process (which is only one of several) even further.

Those are just some of the problems. Others exist within other departments and between all the departments and, above all, with the overlapping, contradictory, complicated and self serving processes, one piled atop another.

It seems to me that the Defence Review should recommend that Prime Minister Trudeau should take a leaf out of Prime Minister Harper’s book. The latter, when confronted with problematic defence procurement issues, formed “tiger teams” of civil servants, sometimes of outsiders, too, to rescue him and his government. Prime Minister Trudeau BrisonScott_Libshould do the same, but his team should be headed by his President of the Treasury Board and should be composed of a small handful of very senior officials from the TB Secretariat, reinforced, as needed, by some outside experts ~ probably retired TB senior staff. The tiger team should be tasked to take all the current, problematic processes and make the useful bits into one, single, coherent process that is applicable to all departments and agencies, especially to DND, Industry Canada and PWGSC. Now, I suspect that almost any team of senior officials could do this job but by giving the job to the Treasury Board the PM can be reasonably well assured that they will assume management responsibility for the process and that ~ having one, single, point of control ~ will be very, very useful. The resulting process will still be long, complex and highly political but that’s OK when the thing being managed is big, complicated and of national import.

I think we can safely assume that, given clear and no doubt welcome direction, the Deputy Minister of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff will clean up the procurement staff work in their headquarters, and the whole of government might even adopt a coherent costing and cost reporting system for major procurement projects so that we do not get repeats of the problems identified by the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

In its 2014 report the Treasury Board Secretariat concluded that “challenges continue to plague defence procurement practices throughout the industrialized world, regardless of the systems in place. No existing model seems to be a solution to the challenges associated with defence procurement in the 21st century, challenges that include the growing complexity and rising cost of major weapon systems and of global supply chains.” I doubt that a reformed system will be a solution to all the problem Canada faces, either, but it might, at least, stop the current foundering about like a ship in a storm.

Maybe, just maybe a reformed, better managed system, can put boots in unit quartermaster stores so that soldiers may have them when needed. That would be a major step forward.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

One thought on “Some things the Defence Review might consider (6): Defence Procurement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: