Skip to main content

It took just a few weeks for the federal cabinet to approve the purchase and dispatch of an advanced air defence missile system to Ukraine, at a price tag of $406-million.

Ukraine has urgent need of those defensive weapons to shoot down the waves of missiles and drones that Russia is using in an attempt to terrorize the Ukrainian government and population into surrender.

Meanwhile, Canada’s army – including infantry stationed in Latvia near Russia – has no air defence capability, and would be forced to rely on NATO allies for protection in the event of an air strike in a fighting war.

There have been formal plans since 2017 to acquire surface-to-air missile systems for the Canadian army, but procurement and other bureaucratic bottlenecks have meant those plans remain only that.

So: weeks to supply Ukraine; six years, and counting, to acquire the same system for our own armed forces.

This is not a critique of the decision to expedite military aid to Ukraine. But the laudable speed at which that aid will arrive is as clear a demonstration as one could conceive of to lay bare the farcical – and, increasingly, dangerous – lassitude of Canada’s military procurement system.

Ken Hansen: The Canadian Armed Forces are heading for a Titanic collapse

In 2017, the Liberals laid out a 20-year plan for military procurement as part of the Strong, Secure, Engaged strategy.

But that plan is already well behind schedule. A report in the fall of 2020 from the Parliamentary Budget Officer pointed out that the government had underspent by a cumulative $5-billion between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2020, pushing those expenditures to later years. That backlog had doubled by fiscal 2021, the PBO subsequently found, a clear indication that procurement delays are snowballing.

Political grandstanding, bureaucratic defensiveness, cumbersome ethics rules and a withered national defence capacity all have played a part in procurement paralysis.

The most obvious example is the 13-year odyssey of the F-35 fighter jet, first announced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2010. The first of those jets were supposed to be delivered in 2016, just ahead of Canada’s badly outdated CF-18 jets finally wearing out.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals made the jet a campaign issue in 2015, vowing to start the procurement process from scratch, in part because the original contract was not competitively sourced. Eight years and a few billion dollars later, the Liberals have ended up where they started (with Defence Minister Anita Anand to thank for finally getting to the finish line).

But delivery of the new jets won’t start until 2026, a decade late. In part, that is owing to Mr. Trudeau’s decision to make political procurement into a partisan issue. (He has that in common with his Liberal predecessor, Jean Chrétien, who campaigned against the EH-101 helicopter procurement.)

Such grandstanding is the most obvious source of procurement paralysis. More subtle is the fallout from the sponsorship scandal of the mid-2000s. Defence analyst David Perry says the resulting stricter regulations have slowed down procurement, a situation made worse by the funnelling of too many decisions through the offices of senior bureaucrats.

The imperative to couple procurement decisions with regional or sectoral economic development is another part of the procurement bottleneck. There are legitimate reasons for taking national capacity into account: ensuring a reliable ammunition and maintenance capability, for instance. But the notion of treating the Department of Defence as a regional economic agency needs to stop.

Even if Ottawa got its own rules in order, there remains the question of the ability of the Defence bureaucracy, and the private sector, to digest the largest ramp-up in military investment since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s.

Those procurement problems existed before the Russian army rolled into Ukraine last year. That war has created added urgency in two ways. First, armed conflict between states with advanced weaponry is no longer some hazy theoretical.

More worrying are the technological and tactical innovations on the battlefield, particularly the emergence of drones as a lethally effective offensive air and marine weapon.

Ukraine has deployed such weapons in weeks. As for Canada, Mr. Perry says the current procurement regime might deliver advanced drone technology some time in the 2040s.

A shooting war concentrates the mind, as Ottawa has shown with its donation to Ukraine. That same concentration needs to be brought to bear for our own armed forces.