Mitch Heimpel: Want to fix Canadian military procurement? This is what it'll take
Procurement, and especially defence procurement, is a breeding ground for leaks, scandals and just general bad news.
By: Mitch Heimpel
Rearmament is all the rage for NATO countries these days.
The Germans reversed 30 years of post-unification pacifism in a weekend. The Lithuanians, who’ve been an uncommonly active foreign policy actor of late, have decided to increase their defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. The Poles are demanding F-16s, so they can give older Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine’s battered but unbroken air force. And for the first time in the recorded history of public opinion, both Sweden and Finland have a populace that favours joining NATO. A Russian Air Force incursion over the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea seems to not have had its desired effect, if you’re the Kremlin.
After Germany’s defence spending announcement, it was like the Canadian commentariat exploded. If the Germans, historic pacifists in the post-Cold War era, could increase their military spending by a hundred billion euro, surely Canada could make some similarly dramatic move?
In theory, it’s possible, though there are challenges. We have an economy experiencing considerable labour shortages at the moment. So, increasing recruitment — already an area where recent personnel scandals have caused some problems — would be a challenge.
But let’s say you wanted to start with equipment. That’s easier, right?
To say we have a checkered history with military procurement, fails to capture exactly how bad it is. Our political leadership has failed us continually over the course of half a century. No party has done it well. Some have done it better than others. But no one can claim any kind of bragging rights.
Fighter jet procurement in this country is so fraught it once caused the birth of a new political party. Trying to buy helicopters helped bring down a government. We only successfully bought those helicopters after they became a greater danger to the personnel manning them than they were to any potential adversary. We have been running a procurement for the next generation of fighter jets for an entire generation. Even Yes, Minister writers would have given up on something that absurd.
Our submarine fleet seems to be almost permanently in dry dock. Our most recent ship procurement resulted in the absolutely monstrous prosecution of one of the country’s most accomplished military leaders.
And we just issued a revised bid to finally replace our Second World War-era pistols … last week.
Just cataloguing that level of incompetence is exhausting. No leader or party looks good. The civil service, as the one constant through all these cartoonish blunders, surely has to wear some of this, too. The fact that we seem to repeat the same mistakes can, at least in part, be attributed to a significant institutional memory failure on the part of the people trusted with having the institutional memory.
Now, it is worth noting in fairness that no nation has an easy time with large scale military procurement. Ask the Americans about the development of the V-22 sometime. But, still, no nation has mastered the ability to step on every bloody rake quite as well as Canada.
I’m not a hardware expert. I can’t tell you which pistol we should buy. There’s also genuine policy questions here that need to be settled — I don’t know whether we should focus on the navy because we’re an Arctic nation, or the air force because it allows us to participate more readily in allied force projection exercises — like, say, no-fly zones? The necessary mix for Canada is no doubt some of both, and it’s fine to have disagreements between parties on what the right mix is.
But setting that aside, I want to talk about what it would take politically, to get us to start taking procurement seriously — just a few basic rules that any government would need to follow to procure anything that they chose was important for Canada to have.
First? You need a prime minister who takes a more capable Canadian Forces seriously and is willing to see it through.
That means honesty about how expensive it’s going to be, because there is no inexpensive version a Canadian military buildout. The ante for playing at the NATO poker table is now at least 11 digits long, and honestly, maybe 12. There just isn’t a way to do this, in any form, that isn’t going to cost at least tens of billions of dollars.
The prime minister has to be bought in to whatever the direction is going to be. If they’re sold on it for continental defence reasons, then buy what you need to get that job done. If they’re sold on it for small “l” liberal internationalist reasons, then buy what equipment will support that capability. Some of the hardware will be the same, some won’t. But the prime minister has to set the direction, and provide the moral force to push it through.
Oh, and they’re going to need a majority government. Even with all that moral force, plus a crowbar, a can of WD-40 and a jackhammer, you couldn’t get a procurement this size through a minority parliament.
Next, you’ll need to understand the structure of government and how to work within it. The responsible minister needs to have a seat at every table that matters, and there’s a bunch of those (which might be part of the problem).
Getting the military real equipment is going to be a complicated, so first, decide whether you want the minister responsible to be the defence minister or the procurement minister. They need to be a good minister, and they need to be at the very core of government function. So many decisions, and significant discussions, are made at cabinet committees before they ever get to cabinet. Put the chosen minister on cabinet’s treasury board committee, as well as the main strategic direction committee for the government (the Trudeau Liberals call it “Agenda, Results and Communications,” the Harper Tories called it “Priorities and Planning”).
If you’re going to put someone in charge of a multi-billion dollar government project, they need to have eyes into the government’s strategic decision-making, and they need to know where the other cost pressures are in government. They also need to be in all the loops, pushing the process along.
And for this job, you’ll need the right person.
There is a belief that pervades our politics that ministers are basically just mouthpieces for the Prime Minister’s Office. They’ve been systemically downgraded from effective political operators and departmental managers to glorified spokespeople.
There is some truth to this, broadly. But if you want to look at how a large department, managing a bunch of complex files, can be victimized by having the wrong Minister, look at Harjit Sajjan’s tenure at Defence. Our system arguably doesn’t allow good ministers to truly succeed. But he’s proof that a bad minister can fail. We can’t afford a bad minister in this, not if we intend to get it right.
Whoever this minister is, they need an understanding with the PM — and the PM needs to have their back.
Procurement, and especially defence procurement, is a breeding ground for leaks, scandals and just general bad news. In Ottawa, it is an open secret that the Department of National Defence is the leakiest department in government. Whoever gets this job in cabinet needs to know that it matters to the PM, and they’re stuck with it. They’re not being moved. It doesn’t matter how badly their talents are needed elsewhere. It doesn’t matter what’s leaking to what reporter.
This is vital. It will keep stakeholders in line, because they will think twice before crossing the minister knowing they’re going to need something from them later. It will also mitigate against the tendency that some civil servants have to delay decisions in the hopes that they can simply outlast their political masters.
Short of death, or an unprecedented personal ethics violation, whoever goes into cabinet with this job has to do it knowing they’re stuck with it. But, also, that the Boss has their back.
Will we do any of this? I have my doubts. The cost is prohibitive. Political staff, in an obsessive issues-management environment, do not think in four-year project terms. And, frankly, fewer and fewer Canadians with the kind of background you need to manage a project this size want anything to do with professional politics.
But, goddamn, it would be nice to stop stepping on rakes.
Mitch Heimpel has served cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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