Flying blind on procurement
by Alan Stephenson
July 4, 2016
“Estimate the situation. Do not situate the estimate.” This fundamental lesson is taught to all junior officers in the Canadian Armed Forces who are being trained in how to examine all relevant factors, determine possible courses of action and select the most appropriate option to achieve their objectives. It’s called an estimate of the situation — or just ‘estimate’ for short.
‘Situating the estimate’ means deciding beforehand the course of action one wants to follow, then rationalizing that decision through the motions of the estimate process. In other words, it’s shaping one’s analysis to fit the desired outcome — a flawed approach to military operations, but one that the Liberal government evidently has decided is acceptable when it comes to finding a replacement for the CF-18 fighter aircraft.
With its plan to sole-source the Super Hornet as an ‘interim’ solution, the Trudeau government has demonstrated clearly that it never intended to fulfill its election promise to “immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the F-18 fighter aircraft.” That’s unfortunate, since it calls into question the validity of the ongoing Defence Policy Review process. If Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has decided already on a solution and is shaping the CF-18 narrative to fit the desired outcome, then Canadians should expect nothing less from the Defence Policy Review.
For starters, the sudden appearance of Minister Sajjan’s “capability gap” in the current CF-18 fleet is questionable, given that the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force assured the Standing Committee on National Defence in April that the CF-18s would remain operationally capable until 2025.
And if the Liberals were truly concerned about the life expectancy of the CF-18s, one would have expected that factor to have been central in their narrative explaining the decision to pull the fighters from Iraq. It was not, because it is not a critical concern; it’s a recent politicization of facts to provide cover to proceed on a predetermined course for procurement. Aircraft life cycles are risk-managed by military professionals who will not jeopardize aircrew safety or mission accomplishment.
Prime Minister Trudeau failed to articulate a sound reason in February 2016 for pulling the fighters out of Iraq; his remark in October 2014 about “trying to whip out our CF-18s” could both be excused as simple partisan politics. However, there appears to be an underlying immaturity in the government’s understanding of the true contribution of Canadian airpower to the campaign in Iraq and Syria. Canadian CF-18s flew classic air interdiction missions that stopped Islamic State from committing further acts of horror, a campaign begun by American airpower when it prevented the imminent enslavement of 40,000 Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar Mountains.
The Canadian missions that provided human security to the vulnerable in Iraq were flown in 30-year-old fighters that were chosen through a formalized selection process. Such missions were unimaginable when the government of Pierre Trudeau made the unprecedented decision to purchase an unproven U.S. Navy fighter aircraft, the F-18. Canada’s contribution to international security today was made possible only by choosing the right fighter for Canada in 1980 — one with the flexibility and capacity to evolve with advancing technology — and not by limiting the choice through predetermined Cold War political predilections. The purchasing process should be no different today.
It was heartening to believe that the Liberal government would step away from their party pledge to dismiss the F-35 as a possible replacement for the CF-18 and run a mature transparent purchasing process. There are sound reasons to consider both the Super Hornet and the F-35 to replace the venerable CF-18s — but without a transparent selection process that analyzes and considers the four dimensions of military procurement (political, operational, technological and economic) the government may placate party loyalists, but Canadians will not be assured of receiving the best value for their defence dollar.
An interim solution ultimately might make sense — but generally, most such solutions are costly in the long run and less than effective in meeting unforeseen contingencies.
The Liberals’ credibility is at stake in this decision. Transparency was to be the hallmark of this government. Good governance demands that sound public policy trump parochial political platforms. If the Super Hornet is truly the right solution for Canada, then a public procurement process would establish that fact. But the evidence suggests that Canada does not face a ‘capability gap’ that would require a quick, sole-source solution.
In ‘situating the estimate’, Minister Sajjan does himself and the Liberal government a disservice — unless it is the intent of the new government to play the same old political games with military procurement.