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Military procurement officials hopeful years of troubles finally behind them

A pilot positions a CF-18 Hornet at the CFB Cold Lake in Alberta on Oct. 21, 2014.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For anyone hoping the Liberal government plans to blow up Canada's much-maligned military procurement system, Patrick Finn has some advice: Don't hold your breath.

Finn is the Defence Department official responsible for overseeing $6-billion in annual spending that has been criticized far and wide in recent years over a perceived failure to deliver critical military equipment.

The problems have been blamed on poor planning, red tape and internal bickering, which has tied up efforts to buy new aircraft, naval ships and other equipment.

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There were expectations that the Liberal government would finally start to unravel the problem with its new defence policy last month, which promised an extra $62-billion for the military over the next 20 years.

But the policy made little mention of the procurement system, even though its proper functioning will be all the more critical if and when the promised new defence spending starts to flow.

Finn, whose official title at National Defence is assistant deputy minister of materiel, believes that after a decade of hard-earned lessons, the system has finally turned a corner.

"Do I think we're on the right path? I do," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Do I think we're at the end of that path? We're not. Do I think we're through all the growing pains? We're not, but we're a lot more mature than we were three, five, eight or 10 years ago."

The reference to 10 years ago is important.

National Defence's materiel section had only a handful of procurement specialists, many of whom were inexperienced, when the Harper Conservatives unveiled their own defence policy in 2008.

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Gutted in the 1990s, the section struggled to produce accurate cost estimates and schedules for the billions of dollars in new military equipment the Tories promised.

Finn said many of the problems can be traced back to that shortage of staff and experience, and he acknowledged that having enough skilled personnel remains his top risk.

His 4,200-strong workforce is in the process of adding 300 more staff by the end of next summer, he said, while many of his staff have the hard-earned experience to know what works, and what doesn't.

"The nature of the conversations that we're having compared to 10 years ago, it's kind of exciting because we're really kind of getting into: 'Be careful, we've done this over the years,"' Finn said.

Another significant problem was the fact the Conservatives didn't set aside enough money for their policy, which led to a merry-go-round of trying to match available funding to the military's needs.

Finn is hopeful that the Liberals' defence policy, which the government says has been rigorously costed by six accounting firms, will finally fix that problem by acknowledging the real cost of different gear.

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One example: while the Conservatives said 15 warships would cost $26-billion, the Liberals say the actual price tag will be closer to $60-billion – the same number as reported by the parliamentary budget officer.

Many critics of the military procurement system, including some of those who held Finn's position before him, have also lamented what they see as an onerous amount of red tape and lack of accountability.

The reason is that while the ultimate purpose of the system is to buy the gear the military needs, there are other interests as well, notably the desire to maximize economic benefits and competition. That means heavy involvement in the system by two other federal departments: Economic Development Canada and Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Critics of the system have repeatedly asked the government to create one single department responsible for all military procurement. Finn said that isn't on the radar right now.

"Are we going to fundamentally change the authorities of ministers or are we going to smash it all together? Not at this point," he said.

"And I would caution to anybody: Be very careful. Because even just smashing that all together is probably going to distract us for a year or two while this kind of stuff sits on the backburner."

Finn's optimism will soon be put to the test. The Liberal defence policy promises to spend tens of billions of dollars on 50 major military equipment purchases over the next 20 years.

Those include the long-delayed purchase of new fighter jets and warships that are expensive, complex and politically sensitive, but absolutely necessary if Canada is to have a modern military.

Finn noted many other projects previously tied up in the system are moving ahead or being delivered, such as new armoured vehicles for the army, Arctic patrol ships for the navy, and search-and-rescue planes.

"It's up to us now," he said of his unit. "The government has done their part to kind of sign up to this, and we're very seized departmentally."

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