Professor Elinor Sloan of Carleton University, a defence policy scholar and a former serving military officer, has hit the nail on the head in an article in the Globe and Mail. “Allegations by the RCMP that Vice-Admiral Mark Norman divulged cabinet secrets as part of an effort to press the Trudeau government not to abandon a contract to buy an interim supply ship,” she writes, “is further indication of just how broken is the Canadian defence procurement system … [and] … This case sheds light on an unwieldy, politicized and complex procurement process that seems incapable of producing military equipment in a timely fashion.“
“A navy with no ability to replenish itself at sea is basically not a real navy,” Professor Sloan explains, and, “Supply ships are what allow a navy to operate as an open-ocean, blue-water force, the kind of navy most Canadians would visualize, as compared with a coastal navy. Yet, for the better part of the coming decade, starting from 2015, the Royal Canadian Navy will be without supply ships – an unfathomable situation made still more frustrating by the fact that it has been planning for the procurement of new supply ships since the late 1980s.“
She recites the long, sad litany of how Canada got into a situation where a country with the longest coastline in the world and a great trading nation that relies upon ocean trade found itself without a “real navy;” and there is plenty of blame to be shared by the Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau governments, but the facts seem to me to be that:
- Most Canadian politicians use the defence budget for almost everything except national defence. They see it, mainly, as a political slush fund that is meant to confer political advantage on them, not to serve the vital interests of Canada; and
- Vice Admiral Norman appears, to me, to have been trying to salvage a “real navy” for his country by trying to make it a bit harder for yet another bunch of cheap, ward heeling politicians from misusing the defence budget for partisan political purposes.
In fact the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy should have been in place in about 1980, when the now ancient Halifax class frigates were being built … but shipbuilding in Canada, then, meant balancing the interests of the Irving empire in Atlantic Canada with Quebec’s “favourite son” the ineptly managed Chantier Davie. Nothing else mattered, especially not value for money for the Canadian taxpayer. There should, also, have been a National Aerospace Procurement Strategy that focused on something other than jobs in Montreal, and a broader Defence Industrial Base Strategy, but, instead, in about 1995, Canada tried to abandon its Defence Industry Productivity Programme ~ a “legal” (under international trade law) way to subsidize defence industries because it went against the prevailing, “peace loving” views of the Laurentian Elites. Just as a “real navy” needs supply ships, a real country needs to have a defence industrial base that is supported by its taxpayers and produces what the defence forces need at reasonable, sustainable costs.
There were good reasons for the “broken” procurement system: the received political wisdom in Ottawa is that Canadians, by and large, neither understand nor care about defence and, especially, they don’t care about defence procurement. Many, many Canadians want defence dollars to pay for Canadian jobs, first, with the needs of national defence being a far distant second … or third. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Other countries, some, like Britain and France, larger than Canada, some like Sweden, the Netherlands and Singapore, smaller, have both large and productive defence industrial bases that produce globally competitive ships, weapon systems and aircraft at affordable prices. There is, simply, no reason that Canada cannot and should not have the same … except for political and policy leadership.
Even if Erin O’Toole becomes leader of the Conservative Party and, I fervently hope, prime minister of Canada, and really wants to keep his promises to spend 2% of GDP on defence and reform the procurement process, I know, with 99.99% certainty, that the political professional in the Conservative Party will tell him, “Look, we get that you’re big on defence and you want to reform a pretty messed up system, but, that doesn’t sell well to most Canadians, so you should de-emphasize that side of things and focus more on what Canadians really want to hear.” That needs to stop: Canadians may have their heads buried firmly in the sand but it is the duty of political leaders to dig them out, not to pile on more sand; to educate, not to obfuscate, to propose what’s good for Canada, not just what’s good for the Conservative, Liberal or New Democratic Parties.
Professor Sloan is right: Canada’s defence procurement system is broken … but it needn’t be; others work; so can ours. It requires leadership to fix it … something that is in short supply in Ottawa these days.