The F-35s and other military procurement tales of horror

It would be difficult to imagine a more thoroughly botched military procurement program than the F-35 fiasco that has been taken apart today in a report from Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada.

Hard to imagine, that is, unless you consider the military’s purchases of new Cyclone helicopters, which soared in price from a planned $3.1 billion in 2003 to an actual $5.7 billion five years later, and Chinook helicopters, the cost of which leapt from just over $2 billion to nearly $5 billion between 2006 and 2003. Ferguson’s predecessor, former AG Sheila Fraser, slammed the Defence department in a fall 2010 report for disguising the true eventual price of those buys.

Or, if you’re looking for yet another example to rival the F-35 debacle, there’s the plan to replace Canada’s aging fleet of search and rescue planes, first announced in the spring of 2004, supposedly fast-tracked in 2008 by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and still pending after all these years. That multibillion-dollar program was derailed and delayed by howls of outrage from aerospace industry companies over claims that the procurement specifications were skewed to favour a plane made by Europe’s Alenia.

It’s worth considering both of these examples if you’re trying to sort out what might possibly be going on with the F-35. Fraser’s scorching critique of the purchases of the Chinooks and Cyclones suggests the most nefarious possibility: that federal bureaucrats in charge of buying military hardware systematically lowball cost estimates to try to get politicians to approve the equipment they want.

The saga of the long-delayed search-and-rescue plane program suggests a more complex motivation, though still nowhere near a good excuse. Back in the fall of 2010, when the F-35 purchase was emerging as a big issue, I asked retired Lieutenant-General Angus Watt, a former chief of air staff, and a big fan of the Joint Strike Fighter, why not just have an open bidding process and, if the Lockheed Martin jet is so clearly the best, it would win. Watt’s answer:

I’m not personally opposed to a competition. But the circumstances of a competition would be difficult to manage. There aren’t a lot of competitors, apart from the F-35. In fact, it’s questionable if there are any…What happens then, and I’ve seen this before in other aircraft programs, is when the government specifies [its requirements] and it turns out that only one aircraft is even close to meeting them, then the other, lesser competitors will start to attack the specifications. Rather than competing the aircraft, they compete the specifications.”

I followed up by asking him for which procurement program specifications perceived to favour one bidder became the issue, and Watt answered, “Fixed-wing search and rescue—it has paralyzed the department.”

So I look at the timing of the decision back in 2010 not to hold a normal process for  acquiring fighter jets—to sole-source the F-35—and I wonder if the military— mired as it was then in seemingly endless disputes over search-and-rescue planes—just decided to try to bypass that whole messy business of open bidding.

If that was the aim, it has turned out not to be much of a shortcut.