Retired Vice Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (the day-to-day “general manager” of the entire Department of National Defence, including the Canadian Armed Forces) is quite right when, in an article in the Globe and Mail, he describes the national defence system as “paralyzed by timid bureaucrats and politicians who pass the buck on decisions.“
What needs to be affirmed, however, is that some of those “bureaucrats” are wearing uniforms adorned with gold braid and medals and many of our admirals and generals are highly political animals working in a very political environment.
The paralysis is, in some large part, the result of a new (since around the 1970s, I think, certainly since circa 1990 I can conform from direct experience) “culture” of “don’t embarrass the minister.” The business of politics has become the domain of public relations professionals who are much more interested in campaigning than in governing and decisions, which governments need to make, can be unpopular or risky, whereas promises, even unfilled ones, are safe.
The Globe and Mail article says that he (VAdm (ret’d) Donaldson) “is referring to a trend that has developed since the political fiasco surrounding the F-35 stealth fighter purchase, which has seen government increasingly turn to outside experts and panels to assess and rubber-stamp its plans.” In my opinion, that, the use of experts, is not really a problem if, as some have alleged, the military brass have has tried to “rig” the procurement process, or if admirals, generals and bureaucrats cannot manage to explain (to pretty smart politicians, auditors and even journalists) how costing data is derived and used. I do not blame Prime Minister Harper for calling in “outside experts” (a “tiger team” of very senior bureaucrats) to develop the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy when, it appeared to many, DND could not do the job. Nor do I really blame Prime Minister Harper for trying to “punt” the F-35 decision out of the election cycle by appointing a group of “outside experts” to waste time and a bit of money when the DND bureaucrats and politicians ~ civilian and uniformed ~ had made a complete mess of the cost narrative; they, quite simply, could not explain simple capital costs of each airframe versus the “life cycle” costs involved in buying and flying the planes over, say, 25+ years. The problems to which Vice Admiral Donaldson refers are not just political nor just bureaucratic .. they also involve a less than well managed uniformed bureaucracy in Ottawa about which I have complained in the past.
Admiral Donaldson is quoted as having said that “Canadians lack any context for understanding the management of public funds at the federal level, and have been encouraged to view the expenditure of hundreds of millions – or billions – of dollars on military capability as inherently wasteful and unreasonable and has been encouraged to see spending on the military as wasteful.” That “context” is, in fact, some sort of grand strategic vision which this government has, thus far, failed to enunciate, beyond continuing to campaign by wishin’ and hopin’ for Sunny Ways, and which the last one (Prime Minister Harper’s government) seemed intent on avoiding. Canadians cannot be expected to support a sound, sensible, durable defence structure when the threats to Canada are downplayed (partly due to political correctness) and the risks to our vital interests, which extend around the world, are not made clear.
Minister Harjit Sajjan has an opportunity to, at least, inform Canadians about the big issues facing the national defence community … if, as I fear, the outcome of the Defence Review has not be preordained by the PMO. Retired Vice Admiral Anderson has illuminated a couple of them: risk aversion at the top and a lack of public comprehension about the real costs of national defence.