Why, indeed?

One of interlocutors (in what I think was a comment he intended to make to a different post) saidThen why in the name of whatever deity did the conservative government screw around with Canada’s procurement system because the cuts to it are responsible for our grief now[?].”

I think the answer goes back over a quarter century in the past ~ to around Gulf War I in 1990/91. By then the perception had already begun to grow, in the senior ranks of the civil service, that the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces were too often guilty of “crying wolf.” In the late 1980s Canadian admirals and generals and senior officials in DND had been talking, oka-warrior-and-soldierloudly and publicly, about “rust out” and being unable to respond to threats, even to aid to the civil power missions which a national army cannot, must not, ever lose … the Oka Crisis of 1990 had, some people suggested, probably stretched the army to its limits. But, just a few months later the Canadian Forces was saying “Ready, Aye Ready” when the call came to support the US in the Gulf War (Op FRICTION, for Canada) and Canada sent about 4,500 CF members to war in: (1) a three ship naval task group (HMC Ships Protecteur, Athabaskan and Terra Nova) which involved some good (and rushed) engineering to bolt some fancy, 1990s technology on to rusty old 1950s hulls; (2) a fair sized (16 aircraft) squadron of CF-18 jet fighters; and (3) a logistics and support base with a hospital and communications centre. Many people, including ministers and the media, were impressed; but some people in Prime Minister Mulroney’s inner circle wondered, quietly, if DND’s and the  CF’s senior management could be trusted … were the ships and tanks, really, “rusted out?” How could they be if they could deploy a fighting force that earned plaudits from allied leaders? Should the senior civilian officials in DND and throughout government, some “mandarins” wondered, believe what the military leaders were saying?

That was the “received wisdom” in many parts of the public service when Jean Chrétien cadillac-escalade-esv-hybrid-shanghaicame to power in 1993 … and promptly, as he had promised to do, cancelled the contract for the EH-101 helicopters. “Cadillacs” he called Chevrolet-Cavalierthem and it reflected a well established view in Liberal circles that our admirals and generals were out shopping for big, sexy Cadillacs when what they really needed was a basic Chevy Cavalier. I’m pretty sure that Prime Minister Chrétien honestly believed that his admirals and generals were trying to pull the wool over his eyes … and he was having none of it.

By the time Stephen Harper came to office, in 2006, the defence budget was in tatters and x36xz7rfra0ythe admirals’ and generals’ “wish lists” were enormous. But he, too,  was being told by many Ottawa insiders that DND’s costing and, in some cases, even their stated military operational requirements were not to be trusted. Back in 2004 there were already rumours in Ottawa that the Air Force was trying to rig the Search and Rescue aircraft contract … when the contract was finally signed, in 2017, 15 years after the project was launched it was, in part, because Prime Minister Harper sent the procurement people back to the drawing board, so to speak, to make sure they had a fair process that got us what we (minimally) needed … not just what some generals wanted. Were the admirals and generals “cooking the books?” I have no way of knowing, for sure, but … where there’s smoke there’s usually fire, isn’t there?

Then, during the Harper years, there was a HUGE bun-fight between the generals and the Parliamentary Budget Officer and procurement officials and the media about the real costs of the F-35 … Justin Trudeau’s campaign made political hay out of that one. By the time the Navy’s needs were ready for discussion I think Prime Minister Harper had lost faith in both the civil management of DND and the military leadership … he called in a “tiger team” of very senior civil servants to come up with the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy which was never about ships … it was ALL (and only) about subsidizing our domestic shipbuilding industry in ways that didn’t offend international trade laws any more than our allies’ own national programmes did.

Is that the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Of course not … it’s just my impressions, but I entered the military procurement system in the mid 1970s, as a mid-ranked “requirements” officer and I went back again as a senior officer working very close to one of the top people in defence procurement, so I’m not exactly uninformed. I believe that some admirals and generals did “cook the books.” I know that at least one tapv-img1general succeeded in having the requirements staff “situate the appreciation” for his pet project ~ which meant they kept revising the military operational requirement until it could only be met by one, single, piece of equipment that he, and pretty much no one else, favoured. (I suspect the Army is still looking for a useful role for that piece of equipment.) I also saw, close up, regional politics influence military procurement. In one case I think the military got what it needed, so that was OK, but I also think we paid too much so, perhaps the military got fewer of the right things than it needed or, perhaps, some other project went short of funds. Nothing is ever free in defence procurement: if we want “regional industrial benefits” we have to pay for them.

There are a whole hockey sock full of problems with defence procurement and the Liberals are no more to blame (but no less, either) than are Conservatives. The system was put in place by C.D. Howe in about 1940 and then, rather like a 20th century Topsy, it just “growed,” without enough people even thinking about, much less controlling the processes.

I have my own ideas about what a reformed defence procurement system should look like … but so do some people who are much smarter than I. The process is complex. Neither national policy nor partisan politics can or should be removed.

Anyway, that’s my, very personal, take … based on what I saw (and heard, in a few cases 20170531_145935577_iOSfrom a few really smart people) in the 1970s, 80s, 90s while I was serving in the Canadian Forces, and in the early tears of this century, after I had retired. My opinions are worth precisely what you are paying for them. I guess I’m saying: don’t blame politicians, at least  not exclusively; and don’t blame bureaucrats, well not too much, anyway; look, first, at admirals and generals who tried to advance their own pet projects and their own careers rather than working within a system that has too few checks on the military’s stated requirements. In short the system is broken.

I doubt the Trudeau Liberals care enough to even try to fix it.

We must hope that a Conservative government, starting in 2019, will.


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