Can anybody shoot straight in the Defence Department when it comes to buying equipment?
What’s been going on with defence purchasing represents a mix of snafu and scandal. Delays, cost overruns and general embarrassment define far too many projects. Typically, however, no ministerial heads roll, nor do senior military people get demoted or fired. Instead, bafflegab from junior ministerial press aides and unintelligible and unintelligent mutterings from ministers have been the order of the day.
Where to start? This week, the country’s leading defence journalist, David Pugliese, revealed that at the very last moment, the Harper government pulled away from a contract for 1,500 trucks it had announced in 2009. Why? Because Defence had added so many new elements to the trucks that the cost of the contract had soared to between $730-million and $800-million from its previously announced $430-million price tag.
So last-minute was the government’s reversal – a reversal necessitated in part by fear of yet another series of embarrassing headlines about cost overruns in the military – that the bidding companies had already shipped their trucks to Nevada for testing. Now the government has to figure out how to compensate the companies.
Or take the Chinook helicopter project. Again, once the military began changing and adding specifications, the cost of the project ballooned to $5-billion from $2-billion and drew a critical analysis from the Auditor-General’s Office.
Or the program to build billions of dollars of new ships at yards in Halifax and British Columbia. This was announced to justifiable acclaim, because the government followed the recommendations of the civil service and refused to steer work in other directions for political reasons. It would appear, however, that things are already moving more slowly than anticipated. Even the head of the Canadian Forces has expressed frustration that we need to be “cutting steel” soon. Instead, the government just forked over more money to the Irving Shipyard for more planning.
Speaking of the navy, remember the four diesel-electric submarines purchased from Britain under the previous Liberal government? They are still not operational and are so far behind schedule – and have cost so much more to make seaworthy than anyone could possibly have imagined – that the whole affair constitutes one of the worst boondoggles in modern Canadian purchasing, military or otherwise.
Nor can we forget the Harper government’s air-force baby, the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet purchase, management of which was so suspect inside the Defence Department that it was handed over to a special group of officials outside the department.
The program is a mess. If anyone doubts it, read the June report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) into the F-35 project. In fairness, there are three variations of the plane, and the one Canada is not buying – the short-takeoff-and-landing variation – has encountered the most trouble. Still, the three variations share much in common, including incredibly complicated, costly software that does not yet work properly. So when the GAO reports that total acquisition costs have risen 45 per cent since 2007, that development costs have jumped 23 per cent in the same period, that full-scale production has been pushed back seven years (and counting) and that just about every aspect and costing of the project has been hit by delays, failures, disappointments and higher costs, would-be purchasers such as the Canadian military can only quake at what lies ahead.
The Harper government soldiers on, defending the F-35, but will have no choice at some point but to increase the overall budget or cut the number of planes it had intended to purchase. Said the GAO report: “Continued increases in aircraft prices erode buying power and may make it difficult for the U.S. and international partners to buy as many aircraft as planned.” And then there’s the operating cost for the F-35, estimated by the GAO to be $35,200 per flight hour.
Something is clearly very wrong with the way Canada goes about buying military kit. Ministers in any government are largely clueless about military equipment. They like announcements at factories, airport hangars and shipyards. After that, they run for cover, and taxpayers pay.