Review by Chris Murray
9 January 2017 – London, UK
Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada
By Kim Richard Nossal; Dundurn, 2016. CDN $19.99
It is no profound revelation that Canada has always been miserable at military procurement. With rare exceptions, successes have been defined as simply getting something done. That simple truth is Canada’s defence procurement history is just one giant never-ending political boondoggle. The depths of just how profoundly dysfunctional defence procurement is and just how bad Canada is at it is however usually lost on most.
When simply not screwing up or just actually managing to get equipment delivered is the gold standard, the bar is pretty far below what one would hope from not simply a key NATO ally but also America’s closest ally and partner in defending ‘fortress North America.’
In Dundurn’s latest book in Point of View series, Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada series Kim Richard Nossal attacks this never-ending boondoggle without mercy. He traces a dismal history of procurement that would leave even the most uninterested Canadian on the verge of tears. The history also serves to aptly highlight the key symptoms of the disease that persistently plagues Canadian military procurement. A demand that equipment be made in Canada, designs be Canadianized (as if Canada needed something unlike any other NATO partner), procurement programs constantly leveraged for economic benefit where the military is second to the short-term boom and bust economic benefit are all far too common themes in Canada.
Nossal reminds us how infuriatingly incompetent the Canadian government is on defence and how complacent even apathetic Canadians have been. For all the talk of respecting, honouring, and even loving Canadian men and women in uniform Canadians are liars, hypocrites and utterly full of it because Canadians do not demand more from their government on behalf of the men and women in uniform. Canadians seem unable to look deeper, reach for better understanding, commit to spending the money needed or even have an intelligent conversation on defence related issues. Perhaps all of these are symptoms of living next door to the greatest insurance policy one could conceive of, the US military. It is however nonetheless inexcusably selfish, short-sighted, irresponsible.
Indeed, Canada seems to have never had an intelligent conversation about defence and seems incapable of doing so.
Nossal’s work is swift and blunt. He pulls no punches. You would think it a rather ambitious project, to try and evaluate the history of Canadian military procurement. It would be, were it were not so utterly, consistently and uniformly bad. His knowledge on the subject is beyond repute. Charlie Foxtrot is an engaging and interesting read. It’s insightful and intimate. Nossal is quite knowledgeable about what was going on behind the government curtain during most of the procurement process since the time of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the CF-18 Hornet acquisition. There is some real value to the insight provided into cabinet discussions and motivations. Nossal relays it all in quick, clipped language. It’s refreshing to see it presented is such a way. He gets to the heart of the Sea King procurement debacle, for example, and hits all the important points, drives home his underlying message and does it in a couple pages.
Charlie Foxtrot is lucid, well-written, and has wonderful organization and flow. The chapters are well proportioned, clipped, broken into subjects by sub-headings, chapters build upon one another very well creating a coherent narrative and overall picture of both the nature of CDN procurement as well as the problems plaguing it.
There are however faults with the work that can’t be ignored. There was hope going in that this would be innovative and unafraid to knock the pillars out from under Canada’s ‘sacred’ institutions. Instead, it became something that felt routine at points. Perhaps this is more a commentary on the state of the Canadian Armed Forces more than the author. The criticism remains. Nossal seems far more willing to point a finger at politicians than those in uniform despite their shared blame.
Canadians love the CAF but that should not dissuade them from offering criticism. Indeed it should motivate them. Criticising the CAF as an organisation is not the same as criticising the men and women in uniform, these are two different things, and love for those who serve should not prevent criticising the organization through which they serve. Holding the CAF in some sort of quasi-religious state of reverence that leaves it taboo to criticise is a disservice to the men and women in uniform. Make no mistake the CAF (especially the top Brass) and DND is just as broken, just as political, just as partisan, just a fallible as (its civilian counterparts).
The House is, no doubt, ridiculous and knows little to nothing about defence. But there is an important point to keep in mind in this regard, the House, in even a perfect world, is incapable of providing DND the leadership, it obviously requires, without DND working with them to offer support. DND seems to be completely uncertain of what to do with itself and tries therefore instead to be everything. The lack of initiative from DND to ‘right the ship’ could be seen just as much the cause for current problems at the House where Nossal seems intent to point the finger of blame.
Nossal believes that the fix for all this lies with the House and therefore fixates on it, disproportionately. He seems reluctant at points to go after DND with the same ferocity that he attacks the House. The reality is that this situation and the interactions are more of a two-way street than he seems willing to concede. One component in the process cannot be the sole solution, however much perceived influence they wield. A view of things that presents something of a top-down structure where it’s not the bureaucracy, CAF, or DND that can fix the faults but the House where all hope lies displays a wilful ignorance of the policy arena that is government.
Charlie Foxtrot’s entire approach to solving the current problems with Canadian defence procurement demonstrates a startling level of ignorance as to how government functions and policy evolves. The government is a policy arena, not a top-down military hierarchy of command. There are interactions and negotiations taking place at the agency and individual level, between the parties, the cabinet, House leadership, (one example is the emphasis on regional economic benefits and CDN jobs) DND, the CAF, and the bureaucracy, not to mention the fourth estate (media) all of which move along a two-way street. The idea that this will all fall into line if only the House would put aside partisan divisions (a ridiculously naïve suggestion) is absurd.
Assuming Nossal’s supposition, one has to ask what systems would this new found purpose and unified expression of support for procurement in the House be channelled through? A question never satisfactorily acknowledged. Ultimately, suggesting we change the culture in the House is feels somewhat meaningless, almost like saying we should have more rain in the desert.
Nossal makes the clear point that the House and the parties politicise defence procurement and this leads to appalling back and forth, no question he is correct and this is beyond dispute. He clearly proves his assertion that the House is a major problem. However, saying it is the problem, that the politicians are at fault, and it needs to change in the House doesn’t get anyone anywhere. This attitude also excuses many of the factors involved. The underlying point here is that Nossal is half right. The House is a huge problem and everything he says is right on. However, Nossal’s solution is backwards. He argues that the House needs to change and in so doing it will provide the leadership necessary to right the ship. The problem is that that course correction in the House won’t occur until the military advising the government decides enough is enough and that they can’t go on operating on half-measures and starts telling truth to power, even if it means having to point a critical eye inward and make hard sacrifices.
Nossal shows the pattern but fails to take the key lesson away from it; this is the nature of CDN politics and indeed politics in general. It is therefore not enough to say the House and political culture need to change. By painting the House as the sole source of the problem Nossal is ignoring the inconvenient truth that regardless of the House’s decision the bureaucracy and more importantly the CAF and DND is supposed to not simply implement these decisions but provided guidance to the House in making these decisions. They have utterly failed in this task. If the House has failed then that means so too has the CAF and DND. This self-evident fact is conveniently ignored. The CAF and DND are just as guilty and just as critical to changing things. If DND and the CAF had their game together the House would not be able to do what they do. So one could argue that for the House changing requires first DND to change.
Having said this it should not take away from the value this book holds. If one is involved in Canadian defence procurement in any way, even a passing interest, then Charlie Foxtrot should be on your bookshelf. There are things the reader won’t like. As expressed above, Nossal’s solution is only half the equation. He also takes a pretty hard line on the F-35 and his argument, which he flogs pretty hard, that hinges upon the claim that it will be the only option and the only plane flown, an assertion one could argue is questionable at best. European fighter jets will still be made and it remains to be seen whether the US will end up with one fighter as they state is their ambition at present. The culture of a single multi-purpose Swiss army knife is already pivoting back to the view that a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. Nossal says so himself only pages later when discussing naval procurement where he points out the tendency toward single-purpose systems; there is some cognitive dissidence here. Nossal contradicts himself by pointing to this and ignoring its possible implications to a single fighter for all approach. He is specifically talking about the trouble the Navy runs into for doing this and then ignores the transferable lesson.
His approach on this point and a few other finer details is based on some rather big assumptions (sometimes rather dubious ones about the future) and he fails at times to acknowledge them let alone address them. There is no acknowledgement that this is only one possible outcome and instead he states one possible view as irrefutable. He has a tendency towards sensationalism on this point and uses scare tactics and ridiculous ‘what if’ scenarios that would never happen. One example would be his discussion of North American air defence, which feels very much as if it were written in the Cold War. Ultimately it’s not that his arguments on these points are wrong, they might very well turn out to be right, at least partially, but it’s the matter of fact way he passes off his views almost as statements of fact that is objectionable.
Like most of those discussing Canadian defence procurement in the mainstream, with Nossal it feels like there is something of a blind spot when it comes to the Navy. He talks about fixing naval procurement, and most of what he says is spot on, however, superficial the suggestions. Nossal, however, lacks quality and substance on many points. One is left feeling he doesn’t really appreciate the actual weight of how important the Navy is. He pays respectable attention to the issues RCN faces but he doesn’t seem to have a conception of its importance to even the scant few defence priorities he chooses to emphasise, his closing chapter, which hardly mentions the Navy, speaks volumes on this front. This is a tremendously worrisome trend in discussions of this kind.
For all these reasons Charlie Foxtrot is a difficult book to review. So much of what Nossal says are things many of us have said or even tried to walk forward to the next level (usually without success) but he also makes assessments that leave one uneasy or worse. Nossal gets so much right and one wants him to go for the goal. He points to common themes that have plagued Canadian defence procurement such as paying more for an indigenous built but inferior product. Nossal is also right to argue that the emphasis on Canada’s ‘unique’ needs is killing Canada’s defence procurement. There is no arguing that Canada’s eyes are bigger than its stomach and that cost usually means things get downgraded as the process goes along, incidentally increasing per unit price along the way.
Nossal is also worrisome, his (self-admitted) defeatist attitude regarding the prospect of increasing CDN defence spending from, what he, rightfully, calls “stingy” to something more reasonable deeply disturbing. It’s also strange that he would hold out some hope of fixing the partisan defence process in the House but not for seeing defence spending increases to what he agrees it should be. Why surrender that point when you’re already fighting the hypothetical paper war if it is already lost?
Ultimately Nossal has one thing right, we are all in complete agreement, the Canadian procurement process is completely and utterly dysfunctional. Everyone involved should be sacked and sent off on deployment. The current system is massively wasteful, completely ineffective, does not speak well to Canada’s abilities as a country, and needs serious correction. The Canadian government has failed both in their responsibilities to manage tax dollars responsibly as well as to provide for the men and women in uniform.
Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada will no doubt be divisive on some points but it is a must have. It will no doubt do as Dundurn intended and lead to a great deal of debate on the subject, and the more of that, along with criticisms, had the better.
This book can be found here at Dundurn
Feature photo / “Canadian Forces CH-124 Sea King (HMCS Regina)” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017
Inset Photo / “Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada” – Dundurn, 2016
DefenceReport’s Book Watch is a multi-format blog that features suggested readings to provide insight into current and historical events from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.