Military procurement is a national disgrace

The term “aging Sea King” is a decades-old joke in Canada. Dramatic change is needed.

Public Works Minister Diane Finley, left to right, Defense Minister Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay shake hands during a photo op in front of CH-148 Cyclone helicopter at 12 Wing Shearwater in Shearwater, N.S., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The Conservative government has formally accepted the first six of the long-delayed CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters. Tim Krochak/CP

Public Works Minister Diane Finley, left to right, Defence Minister Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay shake hands during a photo op in front of CH-148 Cyclone helicopter at 12 Wing Shearwater in Shearwater, N.S., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The Conservative government has formally accepted the first six of the long-delayed CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters. Tim Krochak/CP

Listen to Scott Gilmore Wells read his column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

Many years ago I found myself in a UN peacekeeping mission, preparing for the arrival of a Defence minister who was coming to visit a Canadian contingent up-country on a remote base. Just before he flew in, to my consternation and the dismay of the officers working with me, the minister’s staff informed us of “concerns” about using one of our Sea Kings. Evidently, he believed the infamous helicopters were safe enough for the troops, but not for him.

When our VIP arrived, we escorted him to the replacement: a decrepit UN helicopter, a Russian MI-8 with a Bulgarian crew who smelled of alcohol and smoked in the cockpit. We lurched and rattled through the air as the minister gripped his seat with white knuckles, hydraulic fluid dripping onto his suit from the gearbox above. I still vividly remember the look of anger and disdain on the faces of the officers escorting the minister. If we had augered into the jungle below, I think they would have gone down happy knowing this craven politician was going with them.

The minister had good reasons to worry. The Sea Kings have been in use since 1963, and of the 41 purchased by the Canadian Forces, 14 have been destroyed in crashes, taking the lives of eight aircrew and injuring many more. The phrase “aging Sea King” has been used by the media as far back as 1985 and should rightfully be part of its official title.

aging sea kings

Canadian journalists have spent 30 years pointing out the age of the country’s ever-aging Sea Kings.

Finally, this week, after 30 years of dithering and incompetence, replacements have arrived. The government is so proud that three separate Conservative politicians jostled for photo opportunities at the announcement. I suspect I’d recognize the look on the faces of the armed forces personnel as they watched Jason Kenney, Diane Finley and Peter MacKay strut about with shameless self-satisfaction.

It is difficult to say this with sufficient emphasis without resorting to all-caps: those politicians, this government, the senior officers and the procurement bureaucrats in Ottawa deserve nothing but our contempt for the way they have managed Canada’s military purchasing.

The list of bungled projects has become so long and contains so many costly and disastrous failures, you are forced to wonder if foreign saboteurs infiltrated DND years ago. Joint Support Ships, uniforms, mid-shore vessels, submarines, search and rescue aircraft, drones, armoured tanks, trucks, strategic lift aircraft, Chinook helicopters, their new headquarters, rifles, and of course the biggest fiasco of them all: the F-35 fighter jet. Again and again, costs double and then triple, deadlines are missed by years, and when the equipment finally arrive–it doesn’t work.

How does this happen? There have been dozens of studies, reports and investigations, all pointing fingers in different directions. Some blame archaic and cumbersome bureaucratic processes. Others point to understaffing and burnout among officials. There have been arguments about conflicts between the Treasury Board, Public Works, and DND. In some cases, it appears to be bad luck, in others simple incompetence. Political grandstanding has played a role, such as when former prime minister Jean  Chrétien cynically cancelled an earlier replacement of the Sea Kings. And of course, there are numerous examples of contracts being awarded not on merit, but in a cynical effort to generate votes.

To be fair, there have also been timid efforts to fix the mess. Ministers have been shuffled. Generals have been retired. New procurement strategies have been drafted, adopted, blamed and discarded. But, self-evidently, none of this has worked. David Pugliese, the relentless Ottawa Citizen journalist who has made a career covering the endless procurement failures of DND, reported this week that the new Cyclone helicopters may be underpowered. And even if this latest problem is fixed, Canada will not take full delivery of the new helicopters for another three years. The decades-long national embarrassment of the Sea Kings is not over yet.

It is obvious. It has been obvious for years. Incremental and piecemeal changes to Canada’s utterly broken military procurement system don’t work. We are long past the point of tinkering. Wholesale change is needed.

The glacial and confused inter-departmental procurement process should be centralized within one organization, be it DND, Public Works, or a new stand-alone agency. MacKay, Finley, Kenney, and every officer and official who presides over the current mess should be given new jobs, perhaps in some isolated Canadian base in Nunavut or Newfoundland. And every single one of them should be flown there in a Sea King.


Military procurement is a national disgrace

  1. That’s because we don’t know what we want a military FOR.

    We ‘contributed’ to WWI and II and that’s about it.

    Consequently you get people sitting in cockpits going brrm brrmm fantasizing about being ‘Top Gun’

    Meanwhile the time of a ‘metal military’ has passed.

    • EmilyOne, you continue to display your amazing ability to dazzle us with your asinine opinions. You are truly a twit.

      • Why do you waste people’s time with personal attacks on me? What does that accomplish?

        If you don’t have a counter-argument, or an opinion on the topic then clam up.

        • I see you have no argument either. Just the usual male catcalling.

    • We want a military FOR protecting Canadians and their interests within Canada and abroad. Hence why you are entitled to your opinion and I am not going to say whether it is right or wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but possibly one day someone might try and take that freedom away from you and that is when the Canadian Military is going to ensure you don’t lose that freedom and then maybe finally you will have something positive to say about our armed forces. Until then our military needs these projects to allow us to be ready to operate in any environment, anywhere in the world at a moments notice because no one knows what the military is going to be needed FOR next and that is why they need to be ready for anything and have the proper equipment already available. We need the right gear to get that job done right so we can carry on the proud history of our nation and honour all those who have fallen so that we could become the great nation we are today. When they ask for this equipment its because they NEED it BADLY because whatever it is replacing is costing Canadians way more to keep running and putting Canada and her soldiers at risk by using outdated equipment in a modern world.

      Canada did more than contribute to both the world wars. We made a great difference to both wars. Example: Vimy Ridge. Why don’t you take a trip to see the monument and take a walk by the the many headstones of all those fallen CANADIAN soldiers who gave just a little more than a “contribution” in those wars and the many wars we were a part of since that you were too lazy to mention.

      Time of metal military has passed? Do you read over the comments you write? Look at the on going war against ISIS/ISIL. That is still a “metal military” engaging in armed conflict as I write this so clearly that time hasn’t passed yet. Why don’t you go over there and tell them to stop murdering all those innocent human beings with tanks and firearms because the time of a metal military has passed and they should get with the times.

      This probably will only get a one sentence reply if a reply at all but I hope you read it

  2. Civilian bureaucrats should have absolutely no role when it comes to military procurement.

    Civilian bureaucrats should have no role in the DND period.

    • The procurement system is screwed up because the military does not control its own budget and must go – cap in hand – to PWGSC for any purchases. A bunch of fat cats making big money with very political connections and no capability of realistic thinking when it comes to the military.

      It is truly onerous dealing with them as they tend to be completely unrealistic on requirements for our military. It has been this way for many years.

      Time to change the system – asap.

  3. Komarade Gilmore it was the Shawanigan Strangler who Canceled the replacement for the Sea King incurring a $500M fine, it was the Libranos who ordered the Cyclone how is this the fault of the Conservatives????

  4. Their haven’t been too many offshore missions in need of them so I’d say we got lucky and save a little cash by waiting so long. What I’ve heard is the new helicopters due in 2021 are hoped for to run 30 seconds without lubricant for a part (gearbox?) to prevent a crash like one that has happened, and it isn’t known how important this stipulation is. I’d like helicopters able to map the land cover of Canada’s coastline. The most important application for me is to see how isostatic rebound is happening on the Hudson’s Bay, so it can be seeded with peat moss. IO guess I’d want a helicopter to be able to carry a camera pod, a smaller version of the new pod the new Superhornet is able to carry.
    I listened to CBC’s story about post traumatic stress disorder being treated/worsened by virtual reality.
    My point is that this treatment will be most applicable to military or first responders who are either very good at their jobs or who are very likely to need to continue (without going postal) to work at their job. Riggs was lost withjout being a police officer. I’m not sure his skill is realisitc as he would’ve been promoted to sniper school and shooting bullets from a revolver ruins the trajectory of his subsequent shots; the gun is lighter and hotter after every shot.
    I suppose forest fire fighting might be important in the future on the tundra and northern drier prairies.

  5. It’s hardly a national disgrace. That would mean foreigners would tut-tut us.

    Defence procurement disorganization and ineptitude would be trouble if it had anything to do with our security. It doesn’t. The CF is mainly for optional expeditions that we can tailor our forces for. The Americans (the only people who matter) don’t care what we send as long as they get our political support. That means we can get “a seat at the table” for token forces. A handful of planes, a ship , a rifle company- it doesn’t matter. Participation is the goal not victory.

    There might even be an occasional upside to the chaos in NDHQ. Things take so long that the rationale for major purchases may disappear. The Close Combat Vehicle is an example. If DND had been able to act quickly we might have spent more than $1 billion on them. They couldn’t and it was cancelled. Good riddance.

  6. The Sea King helicopter replacement project has indeed been a sad affair – read Aaron Plamadon’s excellent book on the subject (based on his PhD thesis) – “The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisitions in Canada and the Sea King.” Though there has been much criticism directed towards the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone, there have been difficulties with other naval helicopter projects including the NH-90 and the Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite.

    In my opinion, the author is wrong regarding the procurement of the strategic lift aircraft, CC-177 Globemaster and the CH-147 Chinook helicopter. These projects, along with the tactical airlift aircraft, C-130J Hercules, were all successful procurements for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

    With regard to the larger issue of defence procurement, constant political interference and changing requirements are responsible for the paralysis in defence procurement, along with using defence expenditures for purposes other than providing well equipped and trained armed forces. The uncertainty of the current and future security environment results the CAF incorporating a costly range of broad capabilities into equipment requirements. Wanting to have the “best” has been a detriment to “good enough” when it comes to replacing CAF equipment, along with a questionable need for “Canadianization.”

    In my view, the downsizing of CAF and DND civilian procurement staffs in the 1990s, with the resulting loss of technical expertise and experience in managing large multi-billion dollar projects, has never been effectively addressed. Project management once again needs to be viewed as an alternative path to a successful military career. Despite the current mudslinging towards DND, the staff in this department successfully managed complex projects such as the CF-18 fighter and Canadian Patrol Frigate during the 1970s and 1980s.

    I am not convinced that establishing a separate government department/agency will improve the current situation. A separate Department of Defence Production existed between 1951 and 1963….including the Avro Arrow debacle….not necessarily a ringing endorsement.

    A new defence White Paper is needed regardless of which party wins the 2015 election. The basic principles that guide Canadian defence policy, established in 1947, remain extant today. Canadian defence policy should be non-partisan in nature. Political leaders have a fundamental responsibility to the members of the CAF who may be sent in harm’s way, along with equal responsibility to Canadian taxpayers to ensure that defence dollars are wisely spent.

    Bertram Frandsen, Major (Retired)

    • Two of your three examples- C-17 and C-130s avoided normal DND procurement chaos by being bought off the shelf. The CH-47Fs arrived years late (after we left Afghanistan) and billions over budget as DND lied to Treasury about their being “off the shelf” when in fact they were not. Now the CF has 15 very expensive to operate Chinooks without the war that justified buying so many. The D models we bought and were planning to sell are sitting in an aircraft graveyard in Arizona.

      If you want the best example of DND procurement ineptitude look at small arms. DND has been unable to replace the Ranger’s .303 rifle or the CF general issue pistol. Suitable replacements are on the shelves of most Canadian gun stores. DND’s insistence that whatever models are selected be built by Colt Canada (it’s parent company in the US went bankrupt this week) has resulted in no manufacturers bidding on the contract.

      • DND does not care who builds the firearms. The government (through Industry
        Canada) insists they be built by CC, the only Canadian military small arms manufacturer.

        • How do you know that?

          If DND is guiltless then it’s still guilty of being unable or unwilling to explain to the guilty party the reality of small arms manufacturing. Why would DND be afraid to point out that 1) Colt don’t make any suitable hunting rifles or GS pistols 2) no manufacturer of suitable guns would allow Colt to make it’s products and 3) tooling up Colt to make small numbers of guns would make them extremely expensive?

          The most likely scenario is that DND doesn’t really care if it doesn’t get these firearms soon (a delay helps the budget) and whoever is managing the program has at least thought about post service employment at……Colt Canada.

  7. How ridiculous to blame DND for these failures. Most military procurement personnel would be thrilled to buy off the shelf equipment. The Government, usually through its “jobs for Canadians” henchmen at Industry Canada, insist on CanCon that prevents the boys in uniform from simply going shopping at the countless foreign firms who already build what is required. Combine that with PWGSC being staffed by the least common-sense Canadians in history, by the Dungeon-Masters of a ridiculously arcane and byzantine system that DND is forced to serve, and its small wonder it takes a decade to buy equipment that is already in service with our allies. Don’t think for an instant DND is the cause of this – PWGSC is the enemy of good-value military procurement, backed up by the well-spoken nitwits at Industry Canada who blindly follow the Government’s orders of “jobs for Canadians at all costs”, even when that cost is delays in procurement and third-rate equipment (but built in Canada). In the triad of DND-PWGSC-IC, do you really think its the guys in uniform, the only one with a vested-interest in getting quality equipment, who are the cause of a ridiculously screwed up procurement system?

    • Doug – I think you make a good point. While there is enough blame to go around, at the bureaucratic level the guilt appears to lie more with Public Works and Treasury than DND. I’ve adjusted this blog piece for the print edition to reflect that.

    • i am very much out of date on this stuff (as are the Sea Kings) but i remember from my time in the service that the main problem was that NOTHING could be bought off the shelf but had to have several “Canadian” mods put into it as well as the evils that are attributed to Public Works and Industry Canada cited above.

      On another topic, eventually Emily might get tired of the universal rejection she gets. Certainly her opinions on the Armed Forces must have been warped by the service she claims to have had. Perhaps part6 of the Fighter Controller scandal?

  8. One question (Of many): Will the CH-148 Cyclone have the power (It’s said to be underpowered) to fly into the Northern Territories to rescue an F-35 fighter pilot who lost his one and only engine?

  9. I do not understand why they do not just use the blackhawks like the US does in the bearing sea. They seem to work very well.

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