By Ian Parker
The first objective in the Defence Procurement Strategy is delivering the right equipment to the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard in a timely manner. This is a fine objective and should result in a well-equipped military and coast guard. But a review of recent defence acquisitions reveals a disturbing trend in defence procurement: that is, the quest for competition trumps military requirements. What this means, basically, is that in order to force a competitive environment, the military requirement is often “dumbed down.” Sometimes. Due to lobbying by potential competitors who cannot meet the stated requirements, and sometimes to the point of ignoring unique Canadian geographic and operational imperatives.
The argument used to force competition seems to hinge on the belief that competition leads to the best combination of price and solution for Canada. This may be true in commercial situations, but, in a military sense, reducing requirements to force competition generally delivers less capability to Canada’s military and arguably increases cost to Canadians over the longer term.
The Fixed Wing Search and Rescue project is a case in point. Once the draft RFP was released, significant compromises were made to reduce platform endurance, cabin capacity and overall performance to ensure there was a competition. The RCAF had set the original requirements based on extensive experience and research, but the final RFP and the forced competitive process delivered a solution less capable than the originally-stated requirement. There was a competition, albeit a flawed one.
The Canadian Surface Combatant project is another example of a forced competitive process whereby requirements relating to platform performance and capability have been compromised to allow less capable bidders to participate. The original requirement developed by the RCN was based on rigorous analysis of the capability required for a 21st century surface warship, but this requirement was trumped by a blind focus on the need for a competition and, uniquely, a competitive evaluation. This essentially lowered the requirement bar to ensure multiple bids, immaterial of the impact on the original requirement or the future of Canada’s navy.
It can be argued that military requirements are gold plated, that there is insufficient rigor and analysis in the development of these requirements, or that the military leadership want only the “best toys.” At best, these arguments demean those professionals who serve Canada – those who willingly go into harm’s way to protect Canada and Canadians abroad.
Developing solid, well-researched military requirements that will see platforms and equipment through a prolonged acquisition process and provide meaningful service is a laborious, demanding and complicated task. It is a process that is difficult to explain and does not fit easily into the “off the shelf/ box store” mindset of some critics, thus raising doubts and mistrust from civil authorities and the media in the military’s ability to write a valid requirements document.
But this is no argument or cause to blindly force a competition by irresponsibly reducing requirements. It is an argument to ensure the necessary training and processes are in place for the development of rigorous military requirements. Once approved, acquire the capability competitively, if possible. But if there is no competitive basis, proceed with a sole-source acquisition. Forced and flawed competition to meet complex military need leads ultimately to a rush to the bottom of military capability, putting Canadians at risk and necessitating costly follow-on modification and support to “make do” with the original acquisition.
Ian Parker served over 37 years in the RCN, at sea and in force development. For the past 12 years, he was an associate at CFN Consultants. He is the owner of GDS Inc.
[All opinions expressed herein are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher or any person or organization associated with Vanguard magazine].