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Jeffrey Simpson

Why Sajjan will be wrestling with military spending Add to ...

Buying expensive defence equipment resembles a wrestling match. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the bigger your opponent, the greater the likelihood of your defeat.

Big defence contracts are complicated beasts. Getting them to arrive on time and within budget is not impossible, just hard, like winning a wrestling match against a formidable opponent. Too often, defence procurement efforts go awry, which have soured Liberal and Conservative governments on the military.

The Jean Chrétien Liberals didn’t fully trust the military brass. Having been around for a long time, Mr. Chrétien always suspected they asked for too much. He didn’t like using military force anyway, witness to which was his decree during the Persian Gulf war that Canada should contribute one ship (!) to the coalition to liberate Kuwait, provided it did not fire any shots.

The Stephen Harper Conservatives liked the idea of the military – uniforms, parades, medals, occasional bouts of action – but not the military itself. There were too many screw-ups from which bad headlines appeared, often around buying equipment.

So now arrive the Justin Trudeau Liberals who, like most Liberals (Paul Martin excepted), don’t give defence a high priority. They know from ’polls that Canadians, like the Liberals, are proud of the military but don’t want to spend on defence.

Like the Chrétien Liberals, this new group prefers that the military not do any shooting. They can parade, train, patrol, interdict, aid the civil power in emergencies, show up on Remembrance Day, but heaven forbid that they fire in anger. Hence the government’s campaign commitment to withdraw four fighter jets from the air campaign against the Islamic State.

The new government inherits a military under-equipped and -financed, a situation that has prevailed for a very long time. Nothing in the Liberal platform suggests this ’will change. A forlorn hope is expressed in the platform that by not buying the F-35 stealth fighter jet, and opting for another jet, enough money will be saved to re-equip the navy, a fantasy of the first order.

The Liberals will inherit large procurement projects in various stages of development. What they will do with these projects remains unknown. What can be said is that the record of delivery on time and on budget for military purchases is spotty at best.

What is now an annual and valuable review of defence procurement by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and two institutes at the University of Calgary, authored by David Perry, recently underscored the spotty record.

Yes, there have been successes and these should be hailed. In 2015, the first maritime helicopters arrived, two modernized frigates were deployed, a contract was awarded and construction started on the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship. A fifth C-17 aircraft was delivered.

However, Mr. Perry reports that “notable delays” plagued these projects: the Joint Support Ship project; the Canadian Surface Combatant; Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft; Lightweight Towed Howitzers; Medium-to-Heavy Lift Helicopters and Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicles.

Overall, of 59 active projects examined, 3 per cent are early, 34 per cent are on schedule, and 63 per cent are late, the report says.

Many are the reasons for delayed and overbudget projects. Ministers change their mind or delay. They cut budgets. They reduce Defence Department staff. As Mr. Perry reports, the number of procurement projects remained the same or increased, but the number of experts to evaluate and deliver declined.

Ministers are reluctant to buy equipment directly from other countries. Such “off-the-shelf” equipment doesn’t provide jobs in Canada. So projects are rejigged for Canadian specifications, or are sourced in Canada at a higher cost than if equipment were purchased elsewhere.

Several of the recent procurements that came in on time and on budget arrived during the Afghanistan conflict when the government discovered that the military needed something right away. Enter the United States, from which Canada bought strategic-lift aircraft and replacements for the C-130 Hercules.

In the year before the federal election, the Defence Department’s deputy minister and two assistant deputy ministers changed; a new chief of the defence staff was also appointed. Now there is a new defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, himself a former senior military officer. He inherits a portfolio not considered a high priority by the government.

Like his predecessors, Mr. Sajjan faces costly procurement projects to be squeezed into constrained budgets. Let the wrestling begin.

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