Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Conservative sea of confusion

Further to Dana's post there is a whole lot more going on and the Harperites aren't just showing simple incompetence.

The word that General Dynamics was pulling out of the bidding for the Frigate Life Extension project actually hit the streets more than a week ago. David Puliese's article highlights something significant.
Numerous defence industry officials, who asked not to be named, say the problem with the military procurement system is that the Defence Department and Public Works expect top-of-the-line equipment for relatively modest budgets.

In some cases, the government expects custom changes to existing equipment that are unreasonable because Canada is buying such a small amount of gear, according to industry officials. In other cases, procurement budgets are unrealistic. For instance, in the case of the supply ships, industry officials say the military did not take into consideration that the price of steel has risen 40 per cent in the last several years.

"Industry officials" aren't telling the whole story. In fact they're nicely deflecting the truth.

The Harper promise to streamline and accelerate the procurement process for military and naval capital equipment under the "Canada First" vision has fallen flat on its ass before it even got stood up. The primary reason? Not enough money.

Industry officials can say all they like about the military not taking into consideration the price of ship-grade steel. The truth is, industry is consulted on such items and issues before the tendering process begins. The navy's project managers knew that the price tag on the projected Combat Support Ships had a "best before date". In fact, after the Harper-initiated review of defence projects delayed everything on the procurement list by a year the navy went back to the government and told the politicians they would probably need more money.

The answer from government? No.

The result is that most bidders view contracts like the Combat Support Ships as a financial risk. For the navy it means settling for less. That will translate into either two - not three - ships or ships which lack the capability the government promised. Expect that the Combat Support Ships will have an extensive list of items bearing the historically famous Canadian naval description of Fitted For But Not With.

Word around the naval bazaars is that the Conservatives talk a good story but beyond that they are clueless. To quote one individual, "They have no real plan beyond an artists conception..."

The Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) program is another problem. The delay in getting the project moving has seen costs go up and a scramble to get upgrades to combat systems which don't return an obsolete fighting ship to the fleet. With only one bidder on the project it means the entire thing can be held to ransom. If the Conservatives were actually serious they would have made sure there was enough money to attract bidders in the first place.

But if anything tells a story it is Harper strutting about telling everyone that he's going to build six "Slush-Breakers" and a northern naval base. That was the navy's least desirable option for Arctic patrol and sovereignty. In various corners most of the gold braid just chuckles at the idea and wish the Harperites would address the projects that are on the board right now instead of floating pipe-dreams to the media.

None of this even begins to address what will be a significantly reduced naval capability for several years. As the frigates go to their 18-month refits the navy will be hard-pressed to meet commitments. Mind you, had the Conservatives ever produced the promised comprehensive defence policy statement last year the navy might have known whether they were actually going to see a continuing ship replacement program. Right now, there isn't one and there is no policy guidance. Instead the Conservatives use the hillbilly method of giving a speech and calling that policy.

The navy's chronic personnel shortage has also not been addressed. If the FELEX program lays up a significant portion of the fleet it has the effect of giving those in the service a bit of a break from a crushing operating tempo. Large numbers of naval personnel have done multiple extended deployments and some have done them on back-to-back rotations as they end up posted from one ship to another.

Non-commissioned ranks continue to leave the service and there is a hemorrhage of junior officers resulting in an even worse situation for those who stay.

In short, the Harperites and their perpetual election campaign make a lot of noise and that's about the extent of it. Their macho military facade may make a good surface impression, but they've realized that they're not getting anywhere near the political bang their party needs from the defence-spending buck.

In fact, the Harperites aren't much different than the Mulroneyites were. And Mulroney was a disaster.

Oh, and while we're perusing the various promises of the Harper military camp, page 45 of the CPoC election campaign platform.

Restore the regular army presence to British Columbia.
How's that working out?

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