Elinor Sloan: Our made-in-Canada defence problem
by Elinor Sloan
October 27, 2014
Recent waves of political controversy over military procurement programs, most notably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, are symptoms of a strategic choice Canada has made in the way it equips its military. From the failure to yet settle on a design for the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship (originally planned delivery date: 2013), to the unawarded contracts for new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft (initially anticipated nearly a decade ago) and the incomplete Integrated Soldier-System Project (once expected to be active by this year), Canadians are witnessing the results of a new philosophy behind the government’s procurement process.
Canadian governments have always insisted on industrial benefits for Canada when buying military equipment. But the massive defence spending promised under the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy prompted the government to heighten this approach. The emphasis has been formally placed on favouring industrial benefits for Canada in defence acquisitions, while increased political cautiousness has placed a higher priority on ensuring maximum value for taxpayer money with zero tolerance for mistakes. Combined, that makes for a slow process.
Canada’s relatively small defence budget has put pressure on military officials to be creative about new equipment — in some cases, perhaps too creative. Officials have taken to commissioning vehicles and equipment that are more versatile and are capable of carrying out more than their traditional functions. In certain instances, that has meant wish lists that cannot be fulfilled in the expected time frame, or even at all.
This is the case, for example, with the Joint Support Ship, which went from a plan for new refuelling and replenishment ships to one for vessels that could also provide a command and control centre for forces ashore and sealift for ground forces ashore. That basket of requirements made this ship unique indeed. Fiscal prudence has also resulted in procurement complications for the destroyer replacement. In this case, the Navy is trying to use a common hull for both frigates and destroyers to generate savings in crewing, training, maintenance and logistics. Thus, the demand for more versatility and the need to stretch spending have led to plans for equipment that do not yet exist and are so technologically ambitious that industry cannot deliver what the Canadian government requires. An example of this was the highly problematic Maritime Helicopter Project.
Last February the government released a Defence Procurement Strategy with the ambitious goal of maximizing Canadian industrial opportunity while at the same time equipping the Canadian Armed Forces in a timely fashion. But these two goals are unfortunately mutually exclusive: either industrial benefits will be lost as equipment is purchased “off the shelf,” or the forces will have to wait longer for equipment. The Defence Procurement Strategy includes a rejuvenated form of the longstanding industrial and regional benefits policy that runs through most major projects and has been responsible for massive delays due to the requirement to use large teams of local suppliers.
Canadians may express a desire to see their soldiers outfitted expeditiously, but doing so comes at a political cost. When tensions inevitably arise between equipping our forces properly and in a timely fashion, and also ensuring there are industrial benefits to Canada, the latter priority is destined to come out ahead. Buying equipment off the shelf is always easier, faster and almost certainly cheaper, but the government has made it clear that Canadian industry should receive some share of benefit from investing tax dollars on defence. Granted, this is not just for populist reasons, but to nurture a permanent base of domestic capability and ensure that Canada retains a permanent level of expertise and ability in equipping its own military. But it’s a slow approach. Clearly, the government has decided that a delay in the acquisition of military equipment is the price it is willing to pay to preserve its industrial and political strategies.
Elinor Sloan is professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University, Ottawa and is a former defence analyst with Canada’s Department of National Defence. This piece was excerpted from a paper recently released by The School of Public Policy and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.