Defence procurement an elephant in the war room
by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Perry and Stephen Saideman)
August 26, 2015
Opposition parties made headlines screaming about the government’s underestimated budget for the jet replacements. Independent reports that came out after the election confirmed the price tag would likely be much higher than the government’s original $9 billion estimate.
But this time, the F-35s debacle hasn’t come up in a meaningful way, despite the government stalling a decision and a US defence think tank declaring Aug. 11 that F-35s might not meet the performance standards of the CF-18s that, at one point, they had been slated to replace.
In fact, aside from some policy announcements, defence procurement hasn’t really come up at all in public debate—and Canada’s defence community is saying it’s about time that Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau bring out their big guns on the file.
Steve Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, said he believes it’s important to hear the leaders debate military procurement and their vision for the Canadian Armed Forces.
“It’s one of the largest parts of the budget. It’s gone incredibly poorly both for the Harper government and for the Liberal governments before that,” he said.
Procurement projects for frigates, icebreakers, Arctic patrol ships, search and rescue aircraft and the infamous F-35s have all gone forward at a snail’s pace, or not at all, said Mr. Saideman, and that’s not being talked about in the campaign.
“None of the three parties are going to want to actually talk about this,” he predicted.
The Munk foreign affairs debate on Sept. 28, for which Mr. Saideman is recommending questions, could be a golden opportunity for parties to show their merits on the file.
“The Conservatives will use any defence opportunity to talk about Trudeau’s inexperience and some of the silly things he’s said about defence issues,” he said. “I do think that the Conservatives are going to have a harder time dealing with Mulcair on this stuff.”
David Perry with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told Embassy that defence procurement “hasn’t become politically salient yet.”
“It certainly won’t be the kind of thing that there’s a lot of votes in,” he said.
“But I would hope that all of the parties have thought about defence more than has been discussed right now.”
Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, said in an interview, “I don’t know how much of an issue defence procurement is going to be. But it most definitely should be.”
“It’s hard to find the words to describe the extraordinary mismanagement by the Harper government of the defence file,” she said, listing areas where government has underspent funds or avoided awarding contracts.
“They talk a very big line on how important the military is. But when it comes to the reality of putting the necessary support behind it, we see a different story.”
Ms. Mason said an example of this is the “apocalyptic language” that the government has used to describe ISIS—and the reason for Canada’s participation in an airstrike coalition against them—despite staging what she calls a comparatively “modest and token response.”
Embassy requested an interview with defence minister Jason Kenney, or with anyone from the Conservative campaign who could speak about the government’s defence record or campaign platform, but the party did not respond by press time.
One major defence-related announcement has been made, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper committing to expanding the CAF’s reserve force to 30,000 from 24,000. That’s not a new promise, but the acceleration of a goal outlined in the Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of expanding reserve forces, Ms. Mason said. But the government has met few of its recruitment promises in the past, she said, so she’s “very cynical.”
Mr. Perry said he sees some positives to the announcement.
Some aspects that didn’t get much publicity included the promises to increase training for reservists to respond to emergency situations, expand eligibility to permanent residents (until now, only Canadian citizens have been eligible) and take better advantage of diversity within the force—capitalizing on reservists’ language skills, for example.
“I think [these ideas] have a lot of potential, depending on how it rolls out,” Mr. Perry said.
Actually implementing election promises doesn’t always go as planned, however.
For example, a bolded phrase from the 2011 election platform stated, “a re-elected Stephen Harper Government will follow through on the purchase of the F-35, to ensure our air force personnel have the tools they need to defend our country.” The government would subsequently back off that promise after the election.
'Plenty to say,' but not yet
Mr. Trudeau made his own announcement Aug. 24, unveiling a plank of promises to Canadian military veterans including restoring lifelong pensions and reopening nine Veterans Affairs service offices that had been shut down by the Harper government.
The services and benefits would cost about $300 million per year. Other defence policies haven’t yet been unveiled.
Joyce Murray, Liberal defence critic and a candidate for re-election, told Embassy this week her party “will have plenty to say in the coming days and weeks” about the defence file, “but not yet.”
Ms. Murray wasn’t short on criticism for the current government’s record, however.
She said Mr. Harper’s announcement about expanding the reserve force “is the height of hypocrisy,” accusing the government of dropping reserves by several thousand and underfunding recruitment centres and personnel.
“A Liberal government will be clear and transparent and open about what our budget is and our plans are, and we’ll be working with the military to deliver on those plans,” Ms. Murray said.
In the 2011 election platform, the Liberals had stated, “the entire procurement programme in the DND will have to be reviewed.”
Heather Finn, a spokesperson for the NDP, indicated to Embassy that the party wouldn’t be participating in a story on defence procurement before putting out their defence platform, but couldn’t say when that will be.
The NDP had previously committed to putting all defence and security programs under review if they form a government and drafting a white paper on Canada’s military role.
Other ideas in the NDP’s policy book include prioritizing peacekeeping operations and subjecting proposed military interventions to Parliamentary votes, along with increased support for veterans.
Advisers to Mr. Mulcair are saying an NDP defence platform might include a modest increase to defence spending, bringing it up from the current record low of one per cent of GDP, according to a Globe and Mail story Aug. 25.
The Rideau Institute recently approached opposition parties asking for a commitment to move away from NATO-led military initiatives and towards UN-sanctioned peacekeeping missions.
The NDP and Green Party both agreed on that direction, but the Liberals wouldn’t commit, Ms. Mason said, despite a return to peacekeeping being a bullet point in their 2011 election platform.
Procurement reforms stalled
The government has made several defence procurement-related announcements in the past year, establishing new bodies and reorganizing decision-making to improve the process—though Embassy reported in May that proposals to streamline the process have been the slowest to get off the ground.
“I’ve yet to see any evidence that that’s actually gone forward,” Mr. Perry said.
“With the exception of an increase in DND’s contracting authority...every other change is outstanding, in terms of actually improving the system to make things go more quickly.”
He said with almost every procurement process, “there have been expectations that it would be much further advanced in the last decade or so than it actually is right now.” Per Mr. Perry, some solutions include expanding and professionalizing the procurement workforce within DND and being much more clear about which procurements are priority projects.
For an industry that’s used to slow procurements and months turning into years of waiting for government contracts to move forward, it’s all positive language ahead of the federal election.
“We are looking for an understanding from the parties of the uniqueness of the defence market, the way in which it is managed around the world and a commitment to leverage defence procurement to Canada’s economic benefit,” Christyn Cianfarani, president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, said in an emailed statement to Embassy.
“CADSI is following the election to hear what actions each of the parties would take to streamline, accelerate and improve the process.”
She added the industry employs some 109,000 Canadians and generates about $12.6 billion in annual revenue, half of which comes from exports.