Another procurement mess

Matt Gurney, writing a commentary for Global News, has a bit of a rant about yet another defence procurement mess: this time he says ~ and I agree ~ that we, Canadians, are “pathetic for tolerating it. Truly. After a decade, I’ve basically run out of more sophisticated arguments. We have a bad government but, hey, that’s OK, because we deserve it, and we will until we force the government to do better.” That’s right: we were pathetic for not screaming in outrage when Stephen Harper decided to starve National Defence, partly, at least, because it had defied his direct orders to cut some of the fat from its too many, too large and over-ranked HQs, and we were even more pathetic when we elected a know-nothing trust fund kid just because we were tired of having an introverted adult in the prime minister’s office.

The procurement screw-up that excites Mr Gurney involves pistols. “A pistol,” he explains, “is a soldier’s weapon of last resort. A 9mm is a short-range, relatively low-398px-Inglis_Rpower weapon. But it can be operated with one hand and in confined spaces. In other words, it’s what you use to defend yourself if everything else has failed and the enemy is right on top of you. Any time a Canadian soldier is reaching for a pistol it’s because that 9mm is the only remaining thing between them and eternity.” They ought to work but to illustrate the Canadian Army’s problem he says that at “a recent pistol shooting tournament for allied militaries hosted by the United States Armed Forces. The Canadian Army team brought 20 pistols. Fifteen of them failed utterly and were withdrawn before the tournament even began. The entire Canadian contingent had to use the remaining five. And these are our best pistol marksmen — guys who know their weapons intimately and know how to take care of them. Even they couldn’t prevent a 75 per cent failure rate. The Canadian pistols jammed, on average, every 62 rounds. The British delegation, meanwhile, fired over 5,000 shots without a single jam.” There’s a reason for that, the pistol our soldiers carry, the one I carried 50+ years ago, were bought during World War II ~ they are about 75 years old! “The need to replace the pistols is obvious,” he says, and he explains that “We’ve been scrapping some, turning them into spare parts, for years already. The Canadian military thinks it needs perhaps as many as 25,000. That would be enough for everyone who needs them, plus a comfortable reserve cushion. And they think they can have them … in 2026. Ten years after the replacement process officially began.” That, Matt Gurney says, “is absolutely insane. A lot of military technology is highly specialized and specific. But pistol manufacturers are basically a dime-a-dozen. Police forces routinely buy pistols. The civilian market alone provides enough demand for pistols. The manufacturing capability exists. Today. If you have a licence, as I do, you can walk into a Canadian gun store and buy a pistol, for a reasonable price, that will almost certainly be in stock. And if not, there’s always more coming from the manufacturers.” OK, it is a little more complex than that ~ you don’t just buy a bunch of pistols, you have to, first, figure out which is the best choice ~ that will involve some trials, and then you have to negotiate contracts for the pistols, themselves, and for spare parts and so on. But it really is not a ten year job.

Mr Gurney says that “There is no economic, military or industrial reason that the Canadian government needs until 2026 to buy these guns. There’s not really even a political reason — the cost of this procurement is relatively low, pocket change for even a small military like Canada’s. The only reason we can’t get this done almost right away is simply because the Canadian government absolutely sucks at procurement. We are just woefully and irredeemably inept.” That’s about right i . my experience … we sucked a procurement when I retired in the 1990s, I’m told by people who know that it got worse in the 2000s and a lot worse after 2015.

The blame for an overly complex procurement system goes back to the 1970s when two notions collided with what had been, until then, a reasonably clear system:

  • The first was the idea of regional industrial benefits … contractors promise that if you buy their plane or tank or radio they will contract some of the work out to Canadian firms in “needy” regions of the country. It actually happens, now an again, but, as a general rule, we, the long suffering taxpayers, pay 101% of the cost of any “benefit” we might ever get from a contract. The end result of this was that more and more government departments got involved in the defence procurement business, creating roadblocks and delays; and
  • In the way of other self-inflicted wounds the Department of National Defence involved itself in a complex project management system, one aim of which seemed to be that we should have a system that was even more complex than the one in the Pentagon, if that was humanly possible ~ my recollection, from the mid 1980s when 3D-office-ring-binders_0I was quite closely involved in the procurement system, is that the new “system” required a manual that comprised seven of those big 2 inch wide binders and graduate engineers had to attend a three week course to learn how to use the books. Some wags said that the primary outcome of the system was to create work for project management consultants.

In any event procurement became and remains, I’m told, inordinately complex and it seems to get slower and slower and slower and the years go by and new rules are added. It seems axiomatic in government that old rules, even when clearly no longer required, are rarely removed from any system and each new rule, and there are always new rules designed to try to produce some desirable outcome, will clash with at least of the old rules creating the need to strike a committee which will slow the process until some resolution can be made to the conflicting rules ~ as you can imagine there are a lot of rule in seven 2 inch thick binders.

But, pistols … yes they matter, as Matt Gurney says, when you have to use your pistol you are in close combat and your life is on the line. Ours, the Canadian Forces’ pistols are about 75 years old so they need to be replaced. They probably should have been replaced Screen+Shot+2018-02-20+at+9.28.58+AMabout five years ago, when the British Army replaced their old Brownings. There is no reason for the process to take 10 years … Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his officials are, pretty clearly it seems to me, either trying to avoid spending anything on defence, or they are grossly incompetent, they  need to be fired, dozens of them, starting with the Minister, himself. That’s clearly not going to happen so Canadians need to elect a new government in 2019 and it needs to commit to reforming the defence procurement system … and buying new pistols, too.

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