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Iain Hunter: Defence procurement is not about war

It wasn’t long ago that nations acquired things like tanks, ships and planes solely for the purpose of fighting wars. Today, the tanks, ships and planes are called platforms and their purpose is not just military.

It wasn’t long ago that nations acquired things like tanks, ships and planes solely for the purpose of fighting wars. Today, the tanks, ships and planes are called platforms and their purpose is not just military.

Defence procurement in Canada also is about things like industrial and regional benefits, value to the Canadian economy, global markets and thriving domestic defence contractors.

Generals and admirals have for a long time had to contend with bureaucrats charged with pursuing other objectives. Not only is war too important to be left to the generals; so is the preparation and planning for war.

Last week, Public Works Minister Diane Finley outlined for defence contractors and lobbyists a new strategy to be run by a secretariat in her department that will challenge expressed military requirements and emphasize “international sales opportunities” for Canadian companies engaged in filling them.

She said conditions attached by military planners to procurements “too often appear to be set to achieve pre-determined outcomes.”

In other words, the brass is setting specifications that are so precise that they favour the plane or truck they think is best, and therefore one bidder. And with one bidder in the running, the price inevitably is higher, and better economic spinoffs might be lost.

So Canada’s military, charged with the defence of the country and ordered occasionally to go after murderers and scumbags in far-off deserts and mountains, has other duties: To help market Canadian products abroad and encourage the innovation of Canadian entrepreneurs.

There might be some retired colonels and commodores who find this odd, but in an age when so much stuff rusts out before it can be used in battle, and when new technologies have to be found to meet rapidly changing threats, a lot more than defence of the realm is at stake.

Armies are required these days to put fewer boots on the ground. Drones don’t need heroic pilots. As the threat of cyber and electronic warfare grows, intelligence and surveillance become more important.

And as new “platforms” become more expensive, it makes sense to upgrade and maintain existing ones. Canadian defence analysts say that for every dollar, or million dollars, spent to acquire a new engine of war, five dollars or $5 million will be spent to keep it working over a life cycle of 30 years or more.

And that means that when the shiny new engine is unpacked, Canadian firms must find in the crate a guarantee that they have the terms and conditions, including access to intellectual property, to do the maintenance.

When Perrin Beatty, as defence minister in the 1980s, was persuaded by the admirals that Canada needed nuclear-powered submarines to prowl under the Arctic ice, and we were on the verge of contracting for British ones, the Americans let it be known that they owned the nuclear technology and weren’t prepared to share it.

So we made do with old subs the Brits didn’t want any more, and they’ve proved prone to steering in circles and catching fire, and have been languishing mostly in palliative care in drydock.

Submarines haven’t been the only proposed procurement to be questioned by Canadian governments concerned with economy of scale and capability. That has been the pattern since the Avro Arrow was aborted by the government of John Diefenbaker in 1959 as an example of Liberal extravagance.

The government in Ottawa today, with $200 billion worth of trucks, helicopters, ships and fighter aircraft in the in-basket, seems determined to establish a process that sets out limitations and examines the need for new equipment and weapons systems well before bids are opened.

It also proposes to post an annual list of defence-equipment needs to let prospective bidders know what to expect.

Best of all, the new approach seems likely to bring transparency to a process that has been largely political.

When project managers chose a consortium headed by Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg as the best and cheapest bidder for the CF-18 maintenance contract in 1986, Brian Mulroney’s cabinet awarded it to Canadair in Montreal.

The military and bureaucrats hadn’t got the message then. Perhaps they will in future.