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Procurement Paradox

Watching the recent goings-on in our nation’s capital with the debacle over the F-35, the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) replacement and yet another announcement of more delays in the delivery of the CH-148 Cyclone, gave me a strong sense of deja vu, all the way back to those halcyon days when I actually had a job.


March 8, 2013
By Paul Dixon

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Watching the recent goings-on in our nation’s capital with the debacle over the F-35, the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) replacement and yet another announcement of more delays in the delivery of the CH-148 Cyclone, gave me a strong sense of deja vu, all the way back to those halcyon days when I actually had a job.

I used to have several Dilbert cartoons posted on the wall in my (government) office, my favourite being a strip from 1997 that featured Wally jubilantly proclaiming, “Good news! Our business plan is in complete disarray!” followed in the second pane by “Free time!! No Deliverables!! And it’s not our fault!,” as Dilbert chimes in with a “Yippee!!” The final frame has Dilbert posing the question, “Do you realize that all our joy comes from perverse sources?” with Wally’s rejoinder, “I didn’t know there was an alternative.”

Treating Ottawa as a piãata makes for wholesome entertainment, but the truth of our spending on our military over the years lies in the often-wary relationship between our government and those who wear the uniform(s). From time to time, reality intrudes into the master-servant relationship and drives the process by which decisions are made. This is illustrated by the soul-sourcing of contracts to meet operational requirements for the recent mission in Afghanistan such as the desert uniforms and the Leopard tanks, new Chinook helicopters to name but a few. At the same time, other projects far removed from the front line are beginning to follow a similar pattern.

Of course, the next step is trying to figure out who makes the actual decisions at the end of the day. We would like to think our elected officials have the final say, but in reality, by the time the paperwork reaches them, the actual decision has been made apart from the politics. Given the culture of secrecy within the current government, it’s virtually impossible for an outsider to follow the inner workings. In situations such as the combat mission in Afghanistan, the military takes the lead by highlighting the problem and presenting the solution. It’s easy for the government of the day to say, “we signed on to do a job and we have to spend this money to give our people the right equipment to do the job.” It’s also difficult to stay on budget when there’s no shooting war; the process starts to stretch out and priorities take on a mind of their own.

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The problem with working to meet immediate requirements is that what fits today may well be obsolete tomorrow. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the Chinooks, C-17 Globemasters and Leopard tanks that were purchased to support the Afghanistan mission. Yet the problem is that the equipment for a peacetime military is purchased on a replacement timetable that supposedly considers a number of factors beyond simply looking at the most effective machine for the job. Effectiveness is indeed one factor, but equally important are the costs of operating and maintaining these systems over their projected life cycle. Another factor is the political consideration of actual Canadian content and what part of the country that Canadian content is coming from. In these situations, the military may have its wish list, but there are many other players in Ottawa that have a thumb in the pie. As a result, it’s difficult to figure out who’s fingerprints will be on any final decision.

As delivery of the CH-148 Cyclone is once again delayed, it looks like the search is underway for the replacement for the CH-146 Griffon. On the naval side, there still seems to be some indecision about the future of the current frigates, ships that were designed to meet our Cold War NATO commitments. Of course with that scenario, the geopolitical playing field had changed by the time they came on line in the mid-’90s. You will recall that these ships were originally slated to receive the Sea King replacement, the EH/AW-101. This is how we deal with “non-essential” purchases in Canada; we punt them around the political arena.

With our recent lineup of minority governments, we’ve had governments that make decisions based on whatever will get them through the day. The sad reality is that even with a solid majority government – solid in terms of the number of seats, not as a comment on the individuals filling those seats – there are only four years before the next election. Immediate survival is what drives all decision-making, no matter on which side of the closed doors the decisions are being made. It’s no wonder confusion reigns when it comes to the procurement process and accurately determining what Canada’s requirements are in various realms. With governments that have become increasingly sensitive to surviving the next election, it’s difficult to make decisions beyond that cycle of short-term thinking.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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