Another critique of defence procurement

John Robson, writing in the National Post, says that “For a deadly high-stakes game of nuclear submarine hide-and-seek you can turn to a Tom Clancy thriller. Or a newspaper. But not, alas, Canada’s Department of National Defence … [he adds that] … The Hunt for Red October has perhaps vanished over the cultural horizon, the 1990 movie and the 1984 novel praised by that amusing Cold War relic Ronald Reagan. But the chilling newspaper story was in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph … [and] … It started “Britain and America fear Vladimir Putin is prepared to cause financial chaos by attacking undersea cables between the countries and are going to extraordinary lengths to track Russian submarines.” Apparently Putin has rebuilt the old Soviet blue-water navy that rotted at the wharf with a particular emphasis on submarines now busier in the North Atlantic than in a quarter century … [and he asks] … What are they doing there? The U.S. and U.K. are expending enormous, impressive high-tech efforts to discover the details, from satellites to seabed listening devices to modern versions of the U.S.S. Dallas following their Russian counterparts. But the big picture is the Russians are developing an impressive capacity to disrupt vital communications as well as, you know, launch a sneak nuclear attack.

Now, he explains, and I agree, that: “Striking at the elaborate cable network between Europe and North America might seem barely more credible than a nuclear first strike. Either way, even absent effective military retaliation, Russia’s economy would collapse without energy sales to a crippled G7. But tyrants are reckless people, and if Putin and those around him saw the world as we do, they would not prop up Bashar al-Assad, assassinate critics and defectors or maintain relentless hostility to the West.” It is that adventurous opportunism or opportunistic adventurousness, take your pick, that I keep harping about that makes Putin so dangerous.

What are we doing?

So,” John Robson asks, “what are we doing about the threat? If by “we” you mean the United States, the answer is maintaining an enormous military establishment full of serious people that just re-established its 2nd Fleet (North Atlantic). If by “we” you mean Britain, it’s maintaining a tiny military establishment full of serious people, unfortunately with more admirals than fighting ships because most British politicians are not serious people … [for example] … The U.K. currently has just 10 submarines, four “nuclear” in the sense of carrying nuclear missiles and all nuclear-powered. But three of the attack subs date from the Cold War and a navy with three modern submarines cannot fight a prolonged battle with, um, losses. (Britain also has a spanking new aircraft carrier without planes, another under construction, two amphibious warfare vessels, six destroyers and 13 frigates plus various patrol craft.) Whereas the U.S. has 32 Los Angeles class attack submarines alone (like the real, retired U.S.S. Dallas), plus 19 newer ones with more on the way.” I agree that slashing defence spending while Putin rules Russia and while China is on the rise and while the Middle East remains a violent, socio-cultural mess is “not serious,” but I am not reassured by American military strength so long as Donald J Trump’s finger is anywhere near the trigger.

And Canada?

Mr Robson says that “Our contribution is … um … yes, well, you see … look, we’re really happy that sexual assault reports by members of the Canadian Forces doubled to one a week becauseIt’s a positive indication that people feel free to come forward.” Which would be good, I suppose, in a military with real submarines, not obsolete British diesel wrecks. Or an aircraft carrier, especially with planes. Or frigates built after Chrétien became prime minister (OK, three were, barely). Or a supply ship. But as things stand, it’s a curious priority … [and] … Canadian military procurement is inefficient even by government standards. But the main problem is we don’t spend serious sums because we aren’t serious. We keep promising NATO two per cent of GDP on defence, which isn’t enough. But we lie. It slipped below one per cent under Stephen Harper, though we did refight the war of 1812 with splendid results. And there’s no money to upgrade crucial, fading North Warning System radar installations.” Now I hasten to point out that John Robson presents himself as a serious man with serious views on a wide range of issues but he, often, ‘cherry-picks’ items from the news and, skillfully, weaves them into a fairly hard right-wing narrative. That’s what he’s done here, it’s what I do, too, to be fair, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

The system

Canada had a world-beating defence procurement system once …

… but it required unprecedented government control over the industrial base and over the people who worked in it, and it required stellar political and bureaucratic leadership. I’m not persuaded that we have the “need” in the 21st century and I am absolutely, 100% certain that, in 2018, Canada’s political leadership is sub-standard.

There is a system in place, now, and here is, roughly and grossly oversimplified, how it should work:

  • First, politicians and very senior civil servants set long term (strategic) policy goals and resource (money) envelopes for security and defence;
  • Second, more senior civil servants aided by a few admirals and generals translate the strategic direction into what one hopes is a coherent, achievable defence policy which includes a shopping list of capabilities ~ expressed in somewhat more detail than I did a couple of years ago;
  • Third, senior naval and military officers translate the policy goals into more concrete “operational requirements,” saying, just as an example, that in order to assert Canada’s sovereignty over its territorial waters and to contribute to global peace and security the Navy requires an absolute bare minimum of ~
    • Twelve to fifteen major surface combatant warships that can fight in a high-intensity naval campaign,
    • Eight to twelve smaller but still combat-capable warships,
    • Eight to ten (small) coastal mine warfare ships,
    • Three or four resupply and support ships,
    • Eight to ten air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines, and
    • Many auxiliary and training vessels;

This will trigger several independent shipbuilding projects;

  • Fourth, that assessment, and the details of each project that falls from it, is challenged by thoughtful bureaucrats in the political centre (the Treasury Board here in Canada) who aim to ensure that the operational requirements are properly grounded in government policy and that the minimums expressed by the admirals and generals are just that;
  • Fifth, and this is always problematical, the government of the day assigns resources ~ usually money, but also a political priority ~ to e.g. buying ships, or rifles, trucks, thanks and boots or various types of aircraft;
  • Sixth (we’re halfway there) the senior civil servants in the Defence Department and the admirals and generals assign teams of procurement experts (usually civil servants) and military officers (often engineers) to write something called something like a ‘Statement of Operational Requirement‘ which will guide another, independent of the Department of National Defence, team of procurement and contract management specialists who will do the actual buying on behalf of the people of Canada;
  • Seventh, those procurement specialists, aided by DND’s own quality assurance and engineering specialists, monitor the progress of the building and delivery of the new ships or tanks or aircraft or bullets and beans;
  • Eighth, Canadian Forces teams plan and conduct recruiting and training schemes to ensure that enough of the right people will be there to use the new equipment and other teams plan and let contracts for e.g. new wharves and hangers and so on;
  • Ninth, the Canadian Forces conduct user (acceptance) trials of newly delivered equipment to make sure that we are not buying a pig in a poke;
  • Tenth (we’re almost done) the Canadian Forces supports (uses, maintains, and modifies, as required) the systems throughout their service life-cycle;
  • Eleventh, the whole process begins again, in a timely manner so that important capabilities are always maintained; and
  • Twelfth, the Government of Canada disposes of the old, worn-out equipment after ensuring that it is safe (to people and the environment) to do so.

There are some problems …

The biggest problem is that the defence budget is large and is seen, by many Canadians, not just politicians and bureaucrats, as a “cash cow” which should be used to make jobs for Canadian works or to advance Canadian social policy goals.

The next problem is that the Department of National Defence seems, to me, to be lacking in discipline at the higher levels and admirals and generals try (and sometimes manage) to manipulate the system to advance their own pet projects for which there is no validated, approved operational requirement or to ‘guide’ the procurement process in one direction or another by ‘shaping’ the details of an approved operational requirement.

Then, there are more and more and more ‘players’ in the process … I watched it begin in the 1970s when the Department of Regional Economic Expansion was created and was empowered to intrude into the defence procurement process in order to ensure that the government’s regional goals ~ which included, for many, many years, an almost automatic 25% ‘share’ for Quebec ~ were achieved. Other ministries, including e.g. Status of Women, were also allowed at the table. Even when the procurement people (in the department that used to be known by names like Supply and Services or Public Works and Government Services and which was the direct descendent of CD Howe’s Ministry of Munitions and Supply) and in National Defence worked together, with the Treasury Board‘s cooperation, to keep the process ‘clean’ the outside ministries were too often able to obstruct and delay as they fought to advance their goals at DND’s expense.

Finally, there is a national media that practices “gotcha” journalism, which means that anything that has a big price tag and is complex in nature and therefore will have problems, which is exactly what the defence procurement system looks like, will be a target for journalists who are, most often, ill-informed about any military matter and, generally, innumerate, but who ‘inform’ political leaders who then make silly pronouncements.

One way ahead

The system is, and must remain, inherently political; there is a lot of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money involved and politicians have a duty to balance all of the nation’s requirements, including defence, to ensure that Canadians can live in peace and prosperity. The process has been very political for, at least, hundreds of years, and, generally, political involvement strengthens the process.

The system works best when it is somewhat remote from the military … as a general rule admirals and generals are not very good contract managers, it’s not what they do best. Civil servants and contractors are better at making the process work.

The system needs to be disciplined … there needs to be a clear, workmanlike process in which the various rights and duties of all the main players are well defined.

Finally, in my opinion, there needs to be a clear and distinct agency responsible for major procurements which will, very often, mean defence-related projects. Perhaps a separate department but, at the very least, a major group within Public Services and Procurement Canada that is, clearly, responsible for major projects. My personal opinion is that Public Services and Procurement Canada is too large, already, and is too much for one minister. There is, I believe, sufficient room in government for a new version of part of the old Ministry of Munitions and Supply.

John Robson was not wrong to say that the defence procurement process is “inefficient” and we, our government, anyway, “is not serious” about defending our vital interests in the world, but he took a ‘drive-by shot’ rather than offering a prescription for something better.

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.

4 thoughts on “Another critique of defence procurement

  1. Mustn’t forget:
    NDHQ, built for a CF twice the size it is now, is spread across three “campuses” in Ottawa.
    The of senior officers number has at least doubled over the same period.
    RCAF CH-146 and CH-148, as well as RCN MCDVs, are all civil designs never designed for combat.
    Bilingualism weeds out good leaders so that only French speakers attain senior rank.

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