Nova Scotia·Analysis

What's wrong with Canada's defence procurement strategy?

A maritime security analyst in Halifax says Canada will continue to have problems with military procurement unless the Treasury Board of Canada allows the Department of National Defence to periodically update its fleet.

Analyst Ken Hansen explains the challenges facing the navy

Sailors stand on the deck of HMCS Victoria as they leave port in Halifax on Sunday, June 29, 2003. Victoria is one of four submarines purchased from the United Kingdom. (Canadian Press)
HMCS Windsor, one of Canada's Victoria-class submarines, performs sea trials in the Bedford Basin in Halifax in December 2012 after completing a period of extensive maintenance. (The Canadian Press)

A maritime security analyst in Halifax says Canada will continue to have problems with military procurement unless the Treasury Board of Canada allows the Department of National Defence to periodically update its fleet.

DND's long and sometimes fraught attempts to refresh its aging fleet as been fodder for news headlines and critics.

Budgets have been criticized for being too fat and too lean. Delays ensue, prices inflate, governments change. Sometimes contracts are cancelled like the EH-101 helicopters in the 1990s. 

CBC's Mainstreet invited former-commander Ken Hansen into their Halifax studio this week for a three-part interview on Canada's procurement troubles.

Hansen, once co-chair of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., is now a research fellow at the Centre For Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University.

Starvation and gluttony are a really bad way to live your life.- Ken Hansen

"It's the same thing with the family auto, if it's getting too old and costing you a pile of money to repair, you know you're being forced into a decision. The problem is, it's been so long since you last got one when you go into the showroom there's a lot of sticker shock. That's pretty much what's happening in the defence world except it's been multiplied by many, many years," Hansen said.

He says some of Canada's defence tools are so old they've been condemned for rust and other material problems.

"The problem is, we can't seem to get that car out of the showroom and get it into our garage," Hansen said.

Part 1: The problem with military procurement

He says there is a conflict between the way the Treasury Board, guardians of the public purse, and DND view procurement.

The board, says Hansen, prefers acquiring fleets in bulk to bring down the price per unit price. Their mandate is to spend the money effectively and make sure Canadians are getting the best value for that money.

"DND just wants good equipment to use," said Hansen. "Frankly they'd be just as happy if somebody could guarantee it and they didn't have to worry about. But they do have to worry about it because they are the ones who are responsible when things go wrong. Sometimes, that has deadly consequences, sometimes it's just embarrassing."

Hansen says over the last few years, the Treasury Board has been winning out and the government has been spending billions of dollars at a time on submarines, helicopters, aircraft, and ships.

Canada's long, and sometimes fraught, bid to refresh the military's aging fleet of helicopters was deemed "troubling" in the Auditor General's report released a few years ago. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

He says Canada's military would be better served by buying a few helicopters and ships every few years, even if it costs more per unit."That's the problem, we don't have a good system that allows us to periodically update or buy new things because it goes against the value for money and best unit cost reason for being for Treasury Board," he said.

"Starvation and gluttony are a really bad way to live your life," he said.

Another one of Hansen's concerns is the loss of institutional memory when no one has been involved with building or buying warships for decades.

"We get this stuff every 30 to 50 years and then we're stuck with it and that leads to another problem — gold plating. The military knows we're only going to get one shot at this so we need the best piece of equipment we can possibly buy," said Hansen.

Part 2: Future of the world's navies

Because the nation only buys warships every few decades, the navy has to try and predict the future of ships.

"They have to be able to fight the aliens from Mars. That's an exaggeration of course, but when it comes to military technology it is science fiction ... lasers and drones and swarming and all this kind of stuff is within the realm of possibility," said Hansen.

He says unmanned drones, silent ships and decoys are the future.

"The need to be sneaky and to make it hard for where you are first all and which of them you actually are," he said.

A ship's service life can span  25 to 30 years.

Hansen says that means purchasers have to predict where future conflicts will take place and who they'll be against.

Part 3: What does Canada need in a navy?

Hansen says the ships are also bought primarily for military missions, but the navy also takes part in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.

"This is a growth area for navies in the post Cold War era," he said. "We're worried now about drugs and human trafficking, weapons, UN sponsored embargoes and piracy."

A tug guides HMCS Corner Brook, one of Canada's Victoria-class submarines, on the waterfront in Halifax in 2008. (Canadian Press)

The navy analyst says other county's navies have focused on developing health engineering and emergency relief organizations.

"Ours has done very little in that regard. So you see a G7 country like Canada showing up in Haiti, mostly doing first-aid and working with hand tools," he said.

"A long way below what Canadian citizens expect. This expectation is clearly that, when there's trouble in the world, Canada should be there to help."

Hansen says if you could fix the procurement strategy there would be more money to diversify the fleet.


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