Elinor Sloan is professor of international relations at Carleton University and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Allegations by the RCMP that Vice-Admiral Mark Norman divulged cabinet secrets as part of an effort to press the Trudeau government not to abandon a contract to buy an interim supply ship is further indication of just how broken is the Canadian defence procurement system.
This case sheds light on an unwieldy, politicized and complex procurement process that seems incapable of producing military equipment in a timely fashion.
A navy with no ability to replenish itself at sea is basically not a real navy. Supply ships are what allow a navy to operate as an open-ocean, blue-water force, the kind of navy most Canadians would visualize, as compared with a coastal navy. Yet, for the better part of the coming decade, starting from 2015, the Royal Canadian Navy will be without supply ships – an unfathomable situation made still more frustrating by the fact that it has been planning for the procurement of new supply ships since the late 1980s.
Canada commissioned its last two supply ships, the HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver, in 1969 and 1970, respectively. Work on the original replacement program continued throughout the 1990s and then, from about 2000 onward, successive Liberal governments led by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin prioritized the project. Canada finally gave Treasury Board approval in 2004; the supply-ship contract was to be awarded in 2008 and the first ship in the water in 2012. When the Harper government came to power in early 2006 it, too, supported new supply ships, launching within the year a competition to select an industry team to build them. However, the bids that arrived in 2008 were well outside the funding envelope, so the government cancelled the competition.
After a rethink of the process, Canada launched a national shipbuilding strategy under which it chose, in 2011, two shipyards for future large ship construction. Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax is building combat vessels, while Seaspan of Vancouver is building non-combat vessels, including two supply ships. After several years preparing the shipyard, getting skilled workers in place and building fisheries and ocean-science vessels, Seaspan plans to start the supply ships in 2018 and deliver the first one in 2021. These best-case scenario dates would give the navy a supply ship some nine years after it was originally to have received one.
Meanwhile, for various reasons that come down to the advanced old age of both the Protecteur and the Preserver, both ships had to be pulled from service in 2014, leaving the navy with no independent ability to resupply its ships at sea. At this point, Quebec's Chantier Davie shipyard, which had not been successful in the 2011 shipbuilding competition, made an unsolicited bid to provide Canada with a refurbished German cargo ship to operate as an interim supply ship. The Harper government signed the contract in 2015, shortly before leaving office; the vessel is to enter service in 2017 and operate under lease for five years.
This "interim" supply ship is the centrepiece of the Norman investigation. But the core strategic issue is the impact that a broken procurement system is having on Canada's ability to operate independently at sea. Canada's frigates can sail to the Caribbean to counter the drug trade; the Mediterranean to address the refugee crisis; the Arabian Sea to interdict terrorists; the Western Pacific to maintain open sea-lanes for trade; or to any other place in the world where Canada has critical foreign- and defence-policy objectives. Yet, without a supply ship, the navy's ability to conduct sustained-at-sea operations has become entirely dependent on allied – read United States – supply ships for refuelling and resupply.
Naval operations are an important and sometimes critical extension and expression of Canadian foreign and defence policy. A navy that has become dependent on allies to sustain itself at sea has effectively ceded part of Canada's ability to support its national interests and defend its sovereignty. The case involving Vice-Adm. Norman appears to be but one chapter in the continuing and sad saga of what is Canada's defence-procurement tragedy.