Analysis

Why can't Ottawa get military procurement right?

The last couple of weeks may go down in the Trudeau government's public record as the point when the desires of deliverology met the drawbacks of defence procurement.

What happens when 'deliverology' fails to deliver

A CH-124 Sea King helicopter delivers humanitarian supplies to South Caicos Island in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017. The protracted process of replacing the aging Sea Kings is only one of the more infamous examples of a federal military procurement project gone sideways. (Provided/Master Cpl. Chris Ringius/Formation Imaging Services Halifax)

The last couple of weeks may go down in the Trudeau government's public record as the point when the desires of deliverology met the drawbacks of defence procurement.

Remember 'deliverology'?

That lofty concept — measuring a government's progress in delivering on its promises — was the vogue in policy circles at the beginning of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration.

While it's sometimes derided as an empty concept, deliverology must have seemed tailor-made for a new government inheriting a troubled defence procurement system.

The Canadian International Trade Tribunal's decision Tuesday to step into the brawl over which multinational consortium will design and support the construction of the navy's new frigates is another lesson in how (apologies to Robert Burns) the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.

The tribunal's decision to order Ottawa to put the frigate project on hold pending the completion of their probe into a complaint by a failed bidder comes at a politically awkward time for the Liberals.

One week ago, Auditor General Michael Ferguson delivered an ugly report on the Liberals' handling of fighter jet procurement — specifically, the plan to buy interim warplanes to cover the gap until the current CF-18 fleet can be replaced with new aircraft.

Self-inflicted wounds

A cynic's reflex (given the checkered history of defence purchasing over the last decade) might be to consider these two events as just another day at the office for the troubled government procurement system.

That might not be entirely fair. Still, experts were saying Wednesday that the government is suffering from numerous self-inflicted political and administrative wounds on this file.

With a federal election on the horizon, and in a climate of growing geopolitical instability, the question of what the government has actually managed to deliver on military procurement is an important one to ask, said Rob Huebert, an analyst in strategic studies at the University of Calgary.

While the system, as the Trudeau Liberals and previous governments have constructed it, seems to be the perfect model of the "evidence based" policy making promised by the champions of deliverology, it's also not built for speed.

Some would suggest the deliverology model was followed to the letter in the design competition now tied up before the trade tribunal and in Federal Court.

What seemed like endless consultations with the bidders took two years. The government made up to 88 amendments to the tender. And in the end, the preferred bid was challenged by a competitor that claims not all of the navy's criteria were met.

Alion Science and Technology Corp. and its subsidiary, Alion Canada, argue the warship Lockheed Martin Canada and BAE System Inc. want to sell to Ottawa cannot meet the speed requirements set by the tender without a substantial overhaul.

It does not, the company claims, meet the government's demand for a proven, largely off-the-shelf design.

Michael Armstrong, who teaches at Brock University and holds a doctorate in management science, said the government could have avoided the challenges and accompanying slowdowns had it been more precise in its language.

"They could have been more clear and firm when they use the words 'proven design'," he said. "Did they literally mean we won't buy ships unless they're floating in the water? Or did they mean that British one that doesn't quite exist yet is close enough?

"If they would have been more firm and said, 'We want a ship that actually exists,' that might have simplified things at this stage."

Huebert described the auditor general's report on the purchase of interim fighters as an all-out assault on evidence-based policy making.

"It is just so damning," he said.

A break with reality

The Conservatives have accused the Liberals of avoiding the purchase of the F-35 stealth jet through manufacturing a crisis by claiming the air force doesn't have enough fighters to meet its international commitments. The auditor found that the military could not meet the government's new policy commitment and even ignored advice that one of its proposed solutions — buying brand-new Super Hornets to fill the capability gap —would actually make their problems worse, not better.

That statement, said Huebert, suggested a jaw-dropping break with reality on the government's part.

"They [the Liberals] were just making things up," he said.

It might have been too optimistic to expect the Liberals to fix the system, said Armstrong, given the short four years between elections.

But Huebert said Ottawa can't carry on with business as usual — that the government now must deliver on procurement, instead of doubling down on rhetoric.

The problem, he said, is that governments haven't really paid a price in the past for botched military procurement projects. There was "no political pain for the agony of the Sea King replacement, as an example," he said, referring to the two-decade long process to retire the air force's maritime helicopters.

"The thing that makes me so concerned, even outraged, is that we are heading into a so much more dangerous international environment," said Huebert, citing last weekend's clash between Russia and Ukraine over the Kerch Strait and ongoing tension with Beijing in the South China Sea.

"When things get nasty, we have to be ready."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.