The Wrong Comparison

The military procurement process is defective in both Canada and the U.S. says Steve Saideman.
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September 7, 2012
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Winslow Wheeler recently wrote an excellent piece with a really unfortunate headline for foreignpolicy.com on the Canadian F-35 procurement process. The short story behind the plane is that most of the U.S.’s allies bought into it for the same reasons: early access to an advanced plane, savings from a shared procurement effort, etc.

The article points to some stark contrasts in legislative oversight between Canada and the U.S., suggesting that Canada’s oversight is superior to that of the United States (although it’s worth noting that while Canadians do not think there is parliamentary oversight of the military, they do think there is accountability of the Ministry of Defence, which is something that still confuses me).  

I have one hesitation and then one major frustration. The hesitation is this: we still don't know what the Canadian government is going to do. If Stephen Harper goes ahead with the purchase of 65 F-35s, then the meetings that Wheeler had might seem more like Kabuki theatre than anything significant. That may be unfair, but the point is that if we see the same policy over five years of politicking and controversy, it raises a few questions about how significant the review process has actually been, aside from triggering the last federal election

The major frustration is suggesting that Canada does defence procurement better than the U.S. is kind of like asking which of the three Stooges was the sharpest. This is a common Canadian tendency: We look at how poorly the U.S. does x, determine that we do it better, and then we feel better about ourselves. The most obvious example of this is in relation to health care. Yes, the American health-care system is unfair, but Canada shares the same basic problem: heaps of money spent with lackluster results. The difference? The U.S. health-care system provides excellent care to those who can pay, those who are insured, while the Canadian system works best for those who have the best networking skills and contacts so they can work a very stressed system. The reality is that both countries need to stop looking at each other and smugly thinking that their system is better than the other country’s (our waits are shorter, our rationing is fairer), and instead look elsewhere, such as to parts of Europe that have better managed cost escalation and delivery.

So, while Wheeler’s review suggests that the NDP did its homework, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will reflect that process, or that Canada’s parliamentary oversight is, in fact, superior to that of the United States. Thus far, the outcomes indicate that Canadian military procurement is just as messed up as the American process: The U.S. pays way too much for its stuff, with heaps of cost overruns and very sketchy ties between Congress and defence contractors, and the Canadians pay a lot and seem to get back stuff that doesn’t work. The politics in both countries directs people away from the hard choices, but as long as they look to only one basis of comparison – and a messed up one, at that – neither one will be able to figure out what to do better. Instead, they remain will continue to be smugly complacent and fail to improve.

Photo courtesy of Reuters