Military Procurement – It’s Complex, Get Used to It!
Jan 15, 2010

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The Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) completed, some weeks ago, its series of Industry Engagement Events and one-on-one meetings on the subject of Canada’s Military Procurement System. (Full disclosure – I ­participated in a one-on-one meeting!). CADSI heard from a broad cross section of industry across Canada, and as a result, no doubt received a wide variety of recommendations as to what should be done to “fix” Canada’s military procurement system. A report was submitted to Government in December, and may have already been released by the time this article appears. But for now, I await the report with interest but not without some trepidation! Let me explain why.

In the recently released report on the state of the British military Acquisition system (Review of Acquisition for the Secretary of State for Defence), author Bernard Gray states that “Acquisition Reform, as it is generally known, is a subject only about 5 minutes younger than the acquisition of military equipment itself.” Mr. Gray goes on to say “As well as being endemic, the problem is also widespread…” as he then compares similar problems worldwide.

While often ignored, these two seemingly humourous statements by Mr. Gray are critical to our understanding of the nature of military procurement. The obvious conclusion one must draw, when faced with an endemic problem that has bedeviled worldwide experts for a very long time, is that it must be a very complex problem or someone would have solved it by now! It is no secret that extreme complexity is at the very nature of military procurement. It is a complexity often unique to the public domain, not duplicated in private industry. A domain of competing and often contradictory goals; of short term rather than long term horizon; of very few clients with often unrealistic expectations; where there is zero tolerance for risk, and pushing leading edge technology to the max.

Such an environment does not lend itself to simplistic, broad brush, “one size fits all” solutions. Yet that is often the type of solution proposed. As Professor Harvey Sapolsky stated in his article “Let’s Skip Acquisition Reform This Time” (DefenseNews, 9 February 2009): “…You can centralize or decentralize. You can create a specialist acquisition corps or you can outsource their tasks. You can fly before you buy, or you can buy before you fly. Another blue-ribbon study, more legislation and a new slogan will not make it happen at last.”

While Professor Sapolsky was of course referring to the U.S. system, we in Canada have not been immune to the search for the Holy Grail of the single stroke, simple solution that will finally “fix” military acquisition. The current fixation that competition is the only way to do procurement; the belief that “OEM single point of accountability” will solve all down stream in-service support problems; the expectation that risk can be off-loaded onto the contractor where it can be better managed; and, more recently, the feeling that what is required to right the process is a sweeping organizational change involving the amalgamation of elements of DND and PWGSC into a single procurement agency, are just some examples of more hopeful than real solutions.

Notwithstanding that these approaches have had significant difficulties in the past, or that very little analysis has been done to identify long term implications of adopting these “solutions,” successive governments continue to grasp at them in the belief that, once and for all, they will be the one to slay the dragon that has terrorized so many for so long. The “seductive simplicity” of the proposed solutions gives us hope as Professor Sapolsky stated, that “…on the 85th or 86th time, we will get it right.”

So I eagerly await the release of the CADSI report, and even more importantly, how the government will respond to the recommendations. No doubt there will be much worthy of serious consideration, but I fear that given the need to accommodate a diversity of input, the “seductive simplicity” of the broad brush solution, and the need to reach common agreement inherent in such studies, all could lead to recommendations that attack the symptoms rather than the root causes.

Defence procurements are as diverse as the equipment and services they obtain. The public environment in which it operates continuously changes over time. There is no “silver bullet” or “one size fits all” solution. The process must remain flexible and adaptable, but there is much room for improvement. However as with most systemic problems, this will only come a with clear understanding of the root causes and patience in bringing forth real solutions. Cost, performance, and schedule disappointments will continue to happen, regardless of the CADSI recommendations. The key is being able to anticipate disappointments before they become a crisis and have the flexibility to deal with them.  
Pierre L. Lagueux retired in 1999 after having served with the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence in various military and civilian capacities for almost 33 years. At the time of his retirement, Mr. Lagueux was the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) at DND. He was responsible for all aspects of materiel R&D, engineering, acquisition, logistics, quality assurance and supply chain management for the CF and DND.
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