Beyond the Cold War: It’s time for Canadian military procurement processes to be updated, argues a Canadian Forces Colonel

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 3

Right now criticising Canadian military procurement practices is a little too much like shooting fish in a barrel. There are too many targets too close together in a confined space. If inclined you can simply take a number, get in line, and blast away:

  • The purchase of F-35 fighter jets to replace aging CF-18s has gone off the rails.
  • New surface ships and Arctic patrol vessels for the Navy seemed to have a promising start in 2011, but the generals are complaining that the shipyards haven’t started cutting steel yet and the Parliamentary Budget Officer has decided to weigh in on costs.
  • The recent, last-minute false start for contracting to purchase new trucks for the Army has set that program back, again.
  • Delivery of new Maritime helicopters is years behind schedule.
  • Contracts for badly needed search-and-rescue planes have not been signed.

The list goes on.

In spring it was confirmed that the 20-year financial projections for the capital acquisition program in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) was under review (Siebert 2012; Robinson 2012). Too little money has been budgeted for too many projects. Adding embarrassment to lost resources, in the first two years covered by the CFDS, some of the funds allocated to the Department of National Defence (DND) for capital purchases could not be spent quickly enough and lapsed. The 2008 economic recession and slow recovery have strained public coffers and cuts to the previously announced rate of growth of the DND budget are required through 2015 to balance the federal books.

The whole procurement mess might even be comical, in a sad sort of way, if the stakes weren’t so high. DND is the largest federal department, with the highest level of federal capital spending and the largest pool of federal capital assets. Canadian Forces depend on their equipment to fulfil a wide array of missions with minimal loss of life and injury. The types of missions assigned to Canadian Forces by civilian governments, and how those missions are carried out, are determined in part by the equipment available for deployment. As military procurement goes, so go Canadian military capabilities.

Into this malaise an unusual summer read, a 600+-page thesis by an accountant, provides a constructive respite. Arming Canada: Defence Procurement for the 21st Century is an inside job by not just any accountant. Colonel Ross Fetterly is Comptroller—Chief Military Personnel at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. In 2011 he completed his tome to fulfill requirements for his PhD at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Despite all of the strictures that would still apply to an active duty officer in the Canadian Forces, Col. Fetterly lines up his criticisms with precision and makes a strong case for a policy and organizational paradigm shift in military procurement.

His basic argument is that Canadian military procurement processes were set in amber during the Cold War. The security environment changed after 1990, but procurement did not.

Static opposing East-West forces called for a certain military posture and the requisite equipment, which wore out rather than being used up or destroyed in combat. Procurement took a long time but was still relatively timely. These “legacy platforms” have been maintained with increasingly expensive upgrades. Post-Cold War the demand—exemplified by the combat mission in Afghanistan—has been for fast tempo expeditionary operations in fragile and failed states, where equipment is used and used up more quickly. This new security environment requires more efficient and effective procurement processes that can accommodate constant technological change and interoperability with allies.

DND has tinkered with the Cold War procurement model, but such incremental adaptations will never be able to meet the challenges of the 21st-century security environment. Fetterly’s extensive research on attempted procurement reforms in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia provides the small comfort that comes with knowing that Canada is not alone in this dilemma.
Potentially helpful innovations imported from the private sector are outlined, such as supply chain reforms, new fleet management techniques, and emerging concepts such as “evolutionary procurement” (getting the thing into service then “regularly fielding incremental threshold capabilities”). These would be part of a broad package to transform the procurement and long-term management of DND assets.

Fetterly concludes that such changes cannot be introduced piecemeal into the inherently conservative military environment without a game-changing organizational gambit. After reviewing various options, he settles on the creation of a Crown Corporation established by the Government of Canada to amass sufficient expertise to competently manage military procurement over the long term. He anticipates some of the arguments against this option and proposes ways to meet them by setting up the Crown Corporation with proper lines of fiscal and political accountability.

Grand change requires grand leadership. A conservative organizational culture in DND and the deeply entrenched political drive to satisfy regional industrial interests in military production and procurement are only two of the forces that likely spell doom for Fetterly’s proposal. A glimmer of hope may exist in the current government’s willingness to provide political leadership with long-term vision through the CFDS plan. As Fetterly argues, the CFDS outlined a military procurement plan for 20 years, but lacked implementation details.

Fetterly makes a strong case for radical procurement reform within the current Canadian strategic response to fragile and failed states. His work reveals a clear commitment to finding a more responsible, cost-effective, accountable, and transparent way to equip the Canadian Forces. But without a structural change, military procurement in Canada is destined to continue lurching from controversy to controversy.

A broader question remains unanswered: Are the correct strategic choices being made in when, where, and how Canadian Forces are deployed overseas? For example, over the past decade Canada has virtually abandoned participation in United Nations-led peace operations in favour of United States-led coalitions of choice. Procurement decisions are made within a strategic framework. The best procurement process in the world will not determine whether Canada actually needs the F-35 fighter jet to be interoperable with its military partners, or whether alternative options would enable Canada to more effectively contribute to international peace and security.


Fetterly, Ross. 2011. Arming Canada: Defence Procurement for the 21st Century. PhD thesis. Royal Military College of Canada.

Robinson, Bill. 2012. An analysis of Canadian defence capital spending. The Ploughshares Monitor. 33:2, pp. 16-21.

Siebert, John. 2012. Examining Canada’s military budget. The Ploughshares Monitor, 33:2, pp. 14-15.

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