Does state-of-the-art come with too high a price?
By Bruce A Stewart
Canada’s fighting men and women are experiencing respect in this country today.
You watch a uniformed person on the street — in a terminal — heading for a plane, and almost always someone will come up and thank them, while others look on approvingly.
Meanwhile, back at 101 Colonel By Drive in Ottawa, the Department of National Defence bureaucracy continues to let them down.
Mostly this is because the desk captains are constantly seeking “the best” for the troops.
The trouble is, military procurement isn’t a market situation.
Where it is, they do well.
Consider the frigates bought last year. It’s a pretty standard ship design, using generally proven equipment. Multiple shipyards were capable of building them.
Everyone applauded with the non-political and non-bureaucratic process. Meanwhile the keels are being laid and the ships are on their way to the Royal Canadian Navy.
The Royal Canadian Air Force isn’t so lucky.
By now we should be looking to retire the replacements for the Sea King helicopters — you know, the ones Jean Chrétien cancelled because Brian Mulroney had approved them.
Well, we’re still flying Sea Kings today — or rather, we’re still flying what’s left of them.
Meanwhile, for nearly two decades, DND has played around with “what’s the state-of-the-art helicopter”.
We got close a few years back, but then a new model was introduced, and the whole analysis started again.
How many more of these have to fall out of the sky before we simply buy one generation back and get on with things?
We don’t need the latest and greatest for search and rescue choppers. We just need new ones that don’t have too many air miles on the fuselage and rotors.
We’re doing the same thing, in a different way, with the F-35s to replace the aging CF-18As.
Country after country that first signed up for the Joint Strike Fighter program has bailed out, or drastically cut back on the number of F-35s they’ll finally take.
Meanwhile the ultimate cost will be driven by the total number of planes accepted — and the technical capabilities keep shifting.
That shifting is a function of the US Department of Defense and Pentagon procurement procedures, not military requirements.
The Pentagon tries to keep all of the US aerospace defence contractors in business. The US Navy buys from one, the US Marines from another, the US Air Force from a third.
The game of “my plane is better than your plane” then takes over, and constant requirements change — from the supplier, to make their product “look better” and from the desk jockeys in the building with “four walls and a spare” — make getting to a finished, stable design difficult.
But again, what Canada needs isn’t necessarily the world’s latest and greatest fighter jet. It needs usable ones that are in production, to replace ones that have too many air miles on their fuselages and engines.
That’s a decision other countries have had no problem taking, but that our Defence bureaucracy can’t seem to get straight. Not that they’ve had any direction to the contrary from the Government.
The Canadian military undertake different missions than do the US Armed Forces. Our needs are different.
DND’s primary job is to make sure our fighting men and women have the equipment needed, and that it is periodically renewed so that wear doesn’t compromise lives.
We’re not in the game of keeping a military-industrial complex financially healthy, and we’re not invasion specialists, like the US Air Force and Navy.
It’s time DND got the RCAF, the RCN and the various regiments what they need. Before more die because we’re waiting to replace 1960s and 1970s vintage equipment.