In the 2005-2006 election campaign, the Conservative Party turned its attention to the Arctic. In that vast and forbidding territory, the party could plant its flag, not so much for seats but for symbolism. The Liberals owned the Charter, the flag, bilingualism; the Conservatives would own, symbolically, the Arctic and the military.
So, blending the Arctic and the military, the Conservatives boldly promised in that election to build three armed, heavy icebreakers to be stationed in Iqaluit manned with regular force personnel. A year later, the promise died, buried by financial reality.
Thus began a string of broken promises, delays, cost overruns, policy reversals and braggadocio that have characterized the Harper government's defence procurement efforts – in the North and beyond, for the navy, army and air force. For a government that has hugged the military close and announced with ballyhoo that it would spend $50-billion re-equipping the military, the repeated defence procurement failures are among the most obvious of all the embarrassments since the Harperites took office.
Several of the embarrassments, in fairness, date back to the Liberal era, notably the cost overruns of the diesel-electric submarines purchased from Britain and the fiasco of the Sikorsky helicopters worth $5.7-billion that were supposed to replace the 50-year-old Sea King helicopters. These new helicopters have been delayed again and only a foolhardy person would predict a new delivery date.
The other failures can fairly be laid at the doorstep of the Conservatives, the most obvious being the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the Conservatives milked politically for every drop of political gain, only to find the real, higher costs exposed by the Auditor-General. The project is now under review.
These obvious bungles aside, consider the list of projects gone off the rails for reasons of cost or timing, or both, contained in an indispensable essay by Elinor Sloan of Carleton University published recently by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Prof. Sloan, in dry, straightforward language, lists 15 defence acquisitions and initiatives each anticipated to cost more than $100-million. The list leaves the reader somewhere between tears and anger.
As of September, 2013, there has been no delivery of Marine Helicopters once promised to start in 2008; no Request-for-Proposals for Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft originally anticipated for 2005; no steel cut for the Joint Support Ship, promised for first delivery in 2012; no design chosen for the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, originally planned for first delivery in 2013; no design chosen for the Canadian Surface Combatant to replace existing destroyers, now estimated for first delivery in 2022 rather than 2016-2017.
Other projects are also way behind the initially announced schedules. Still others are over budget, leaving the government with hard choices about reducing the scope of the purchase.
Recently, the government cancelled the army's Close Combat Vehicle. The Harper government had committed to the CCV after the vehicles sent to Afghanistan proved inadequate, even dangerous, for the troops. Then-defence minister Peter MacKay, who presided over many of these procurement problems, and a handful of senior military officials pushed hard for years for the new vehicle, until Prime Minister Stephen Harper killed it on the advice of Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff.
It is amazing, given the record, that the Harper government has not been excoriated publicly for so many delays and failures. Its poor record has a lot to do with very weak political leadership, foolish political commitments right from the first election campaign, and a chronic decision (not unique to this government) to over-promise and under-deliver.
Beyond politics, however, lie a host of other structural reasons for projects going off the rails: too many ministers and departments, changing threats, rapidly changing and expensive technologies, managing projects simultaneously, a multiplicity of stakeholders, changing specifications, defence contractors' lobbying, "schedule slip" with its cascading effect on costs and timing, changing company ownership, skills shortages inside government, an estimated yearly cost inflation of 10 per cent, endless internal reviews, and a "conspiracy of optimism" whereby officials don't always tell the truth to their political masters and they, in turn, don't tell the public.
All of which have been on display. It's cold comfort to know that these problems afflict procurement in other countries, too.