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Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst and owner of Hansen Maritime Horizons. Retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander, he is also a contributor to the security affairs committee for the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia.

For people inside the Department of National Defence, a minority Parliament – coupled with election promises for increased social spending and tax cuts – represents an uneasy calculus.

Defence spending is always on the chopping block because it represents the largest pool of discretionary spending in the federal budget, and every party spent the recent federal election campaign being vague about military policy – offering some kind of oversight-body reform or scrutiny over the billions of dollars that have been earmarked, even as they lent their support to ensuring the military has the equipment it needs.

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In particular, the single largest program in Canadian defence history – the Canadian Combat Ship plan for 15 warships – will be a tantalizing target for politicians looking to get rid of perceived fat. Such cuts to shipbuilding programs have even already become normalized: The order for Halifax-class frigates were trimmed to 12 from 18 in 1983 and the Iroquois-class destroyers to four from six in 1964, to name just two.

The political leaders weren’t wrong when they said the military procurement system is broken. But regardless of which party had won this past election, and no matter what tweaks at the edges that the Liberal minority government and its potential supporters pursue, the reality is that the core issue remains unaddressed: Treasury Board’s bulk approach to purchasing the country’s military kit.

Treasury Board policy states that bulk buys are how military procurement should be done, to ensure the lowest per-unit cost. But this forces tough decisions about what to buy, since the larger the order, the longer it will take to produce them all – not to mention the problems involved with trying to predict the future of warfare.

Information systems become outdated in five years; weapons and sensors in 10. With a planned operating life of 25 years, any ships ordered today will be out-of-date by the time the first are delivered, and fully obsolete by the time the last one arrives. Block purchasing leads to block obsolescence.

Traditionally, when technological change threatens to render military systems obsolete, the best way to hedge was to order in batches of the smallest number acceptable. In the years before the world wars, for instance, countries working to build competent naval forces put less emphasis on fleet numbers and more on technology and industrial capacity until the last moments before conflict. Technological competence was as important as numbers for fleet commanders.

Another outcome of bulk buys is that the volume means that they happen only every two to three decades (or longer, in the worst cases). With such lengthy dry spells between purchases, it is impossible to retain corporate knowledge in either the defence or civilian branches of government.

More frequent purchasing keeps the process alive in both practice and concept, with lessons learned that can be implemented by the same people who made the mistakes in the first place.

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Such irregularly timed purchases have created desperation among defence planners whose vision of the future consists of short golden days of competence and pride, followed by long years of rust-out and irrelevance. Unwittingly, the dark decades were in large part of the military’s own making because of its desperate desire to acquire the absolute best model available – a practice known as “gold-plating” – instead of working steadily to build capacity and skill that would address long-range fleet needs.

This is a collision of interests. The Treasury Board looks only at capital-acquisition decisions from the perspective of the buyer. It’s left to the military to worry about how long they may have to operate obsolescent or obsolete equipment and systems, and to do the necessary mid-life upgrading, which is partly why costs balloon spectacularly. Life-cycle cost data is actually far more important that the initial sticker shock of the newest and shiniest model advocated by the military’s leadership. The mindset needs to change.

Politicians who implement bureaucratic change will probably see some improvements in decision-making. But the biggest obstacle to defence procurement is that bulk purchasing is our lone approach, and that it happens only every few decades. Regular, planned capital acquisition is the best path forward, but all paths to the future must first run through the Treasury Board. No amount of political policy adjustment can change that.

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