Kim Richard Nossal, Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada (Toronto: Dundurn, 2016).
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The fundamental purpose of all equipment procurement is to ensure national armed forces have the necessary capabilities to carry out the missions assigned to them by political authorities. Nations seek to maximize their capabilities by procuring the best equipment they can afford. Defence procurement is extremely complex with risks, occasionally enormous ones, in every purchase due to overall costs, technological advantages, economic benefits, and, of course, political consequences. It is unsettling that most national procurement systems are so dysfunctional, with the Canadian one having been particularly inept over the last decades. In this short, concise, well-structured and well-argued book, Kim Richard Nossal outlines the problems with defence procurement in Canada. Nossal, with a nod to Russel Ackoff, defines a “mess” as an interaction of complex systems in which complicated problems can be resolved within and between the systems (p.27). Nossal considers, as the title to this work indicates, that Canadian defence procurement is a Charlie Foxtrot – a polite military euphemism for a disastrous muddle – and proposes a politically-focused solution to reform it.
A professor of political studies at Queen’s University, Nossal structures his arguments to both educate the reader and point to where the solution to the morass of the Canadian defence procurement system must come from. He begins by presenting the consensus about the need for reform that exists across numerous authorities: those closest to the process, the defence industry, academics, and the media. He then proceeds to describe the inherent problems using six case studies: the Ross Rifle, the CF-105 Avro Arrow, the Iltis jeep, the Victoria-class submarines, and the Sea King and F-35 “fiascos.” Nossal then describes the three standard perspectives on what has caused the mess in Canadian defence procurement: the institutional explanation, the economic benefits explanation, and the political gamesmanship explanation. He considers these to be only “distal” explanations. Ultimately, he attributes the cause of this mess to the Canadian “security imaginary,” that is, how Canadians’ view of their position in the world has led to their preference to spend miserly on defence as there are no attendant great national risks in so doing. For Nossal, this “imaginary” has two major effects: first, a highly permissive environment is created for Canadian politicians as voter indifference to defence issues is mirrored by an indifference to mismanagement of defence policy; and, second, a contradiction develops between the model of a military cabinet ministers might prefer and the one they are willing to fund (p.114).
Because of this particular Canadian “security imaginary,” Nossal proposes a political solution to the current defence procurement mess. It is from this level – that of the principals (ministers) not the agents (bureaucrats) within the government institutions – he argues that the solution must be forthcoming. Nossal proposes three main remedies: first, ministers must craft a security strategy for an “easy rider” in alliances and coalitions while accounting for the inherent stinginess of Canadians on defence expenditures; second, cabinet should actually articulate a defence policy, not just a shopping list, should review it regularly, and thereafter structure the CAF accordingly; and, finally, the federal government should encourage greater bipartisanship in formulating defence policy. These proposals would require a significant change in Canadian political culture, albeit one that would better serve Canadian security interests.
Setting aside the inherent difficulties of changing institutional and political culture, what is the likelihood that Nossal’s proposals could be adopted? Certainly, forming bipartisan committees to consider defence matters should not be beyond the reach of responsible government. As to the formal articulation and review of defence policy, it is an activity well-practiced by our key allies. The United States reviews its policy every four years, and both Australia and the United Kingdom conduct regular formal reviews. Can the Canadian cabinet produce a defence policy that is more than a mere shopping list? Despite the simplicity and banality of the general and evident security threats to Canada, herein may lie the fault with Nossal’s overall proposal. The cabinet, admittedly security issue amateurs, would likely struggle to craft a strategy that would balance the real security threats to Canada and the concerns of our important allies with the required force structure to respond to those threats and the necessary resources to equip the CAF. One could be optimistic that a Canadian government could act on these proposals, but it is more likely that they would merely tinker with reforms as they have so often done in the past.
I have two minor quibbles with this otherwise superlative book. First, there are some minor weaknesses with the case studies. The Ross Rifle was an unmitigated failure when tested in battle during the First World War, but it was designed for the austere conditions of South Africa, not the mud of Flanders. The complaint of the use of the Iltis jeep in a war zone is not convincing as it was standard equipment in Germany and had long been used in Bosnia by the time the deployment to Afghanistan occurred. Better mine-protected vehicles had long been available from South Africa, but the use of the Iltis reflected the CAF’s long cultural indifference to mine warfare more so than a straight procurement fault. Second, while I heartily agree with Nossal’s disgust with the waste of taxpayers’ dollars, he unfortunately confuses effectiveness with efficiency at points. Defence procurement is effective when the equipment shows up (the output of the process), but Canadian governments have regularly failed in this delivery function. Defence procurement is efficient when equipment is delivered in the most cost-effective manner, the best and most equipment for the least cost. More money could make you more effective – more dollars, more kit; gross inefficiencies currently waste significant dollars – more dollars, more waste.
Naturally, in such a short book as this, not all the questions about defence procurement can be answered, but it would have been helpful if two issues had been addressed more fully.
First, institutional cultures may play a larger role than the author has attributed to them. The institutional cultures of all of the government departments involved play a significant role in how procurement unfolds. In some departments, professionalism is a slogan and not an inculcated norm. This, along with diffuse and unattributed accountabilities and responsibilities, leads to the often-unfortunate lack of results in procurement (p.90). There are two other cultural practices that go unmentioned. The first cultural norm is to blame DND/CAF for all costing errors (the PBO and Auditor General’s reports on the F-35 are only the latest installments in this game). Long-term cost projections are notoriously difficult to get right and quickly erode with changing economic conditions and delays caused by political decision-making, program amendments or technological difficulties. Yet for many agents in government, this blame displacement retains bureaucratic and political utility. The second cultural norm is the continual imposition of additional procedures and processes into the procurement system while simultaneously preaching that this is streamlining the system, making it more efficient. Few of these additional steps have made the system either more effective or efficient – unless the objective is not to spend defence dollars.
Second, if we accept Nossal’s arguments that for politicians there is little price to pay for partisanship in defence procurement, Jean Chretien’s continued interference toward the Sea King replacement is even more unconscionable. Once elected, he could have simply reversed his position at little cost to himself or his party instead of wasting the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been frittered away since that bold stroke of his pen. According to Nossal, the Canadian electorate would barely have noticed or cared. Thus, there remain few reasonable explanations for the Sea King debacle.
The purpose of point of view books is to offer readers informed opinion about the hard choices facing Canadians to spur democratic debate. Charlie Foxtrot easily achieves this goal. This book is well worth the read for all Canadians. Nossal’s presentation flows in a clear and easily understandable fashion. This book is extremely useful for it highlights the problems that have plagued Canadian defence procurement over the long-term. It analyzes the problem in detail by focusing on six case studies and by then elaborating various explanations of the procurement mess. Nossal correctly identifies the ultimate weakness in Canadian defence procurement: stingy Canadians and politicians who cannot reconcile the general-purpose force they want and the dollars they are willing to spend. Nossal focusses on the correct level, the political, to resolve this mess. His proposed solution is innovative and would go some distance to solving some of the problems of Canadian defence procurement. Still, one would have to be quite the optimist to expect that those who so willingly place the brave members of the CAF in harm’s way would also eagerly accept their responsibility to ensure they are adequately equipped.
Dr. Richard Roy received his PhD in military history from Queen’s University. He served for over 35 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including tours in Cyprus, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and with the African Union. His research interests include land mine warfare, peacekeeping operations, counterinsurgency and Canadian military history.