|Alexander the Great has lesson for Hillier|
It has been seven months since Gen. Rick Hillier was appointed Canada's chief of defense staff, and he is still out making the rounds on the media circuit discussing his vision for a revitalized military.
Since his inauguration, Hillier has been singularly well-received by journalists, pundits, analysts and serving members who appreciate the tough-talking Newfoundlander's straightforward approach. For instance, in announcing our army's latest deployment to Afghanistan, Hillier prepared the Canadian public to expect casualties as our troops take on a more combat-oriented role in the dangerous Kandahar region.
Instead of being questioned about our contingent's combat preparedness for such a mission and about the rationale behind this policy shift, Hillier drew thunderous applause for denouncing the enemy combatants as scumbags and murderers.
The thrust of Hillier's message was for Canadians to hug it up and get used to the fact that war fighting is not for the faint-hearted. No argument with that. What the chief of defense staff must do now is persuade his political masters that while our troops are facing these wartime risks, the corrupted, incompetent and woefully backlogged procurement system cannot continue to idle along at the present pace.
At a morale-boosting speech to service members in Moose Jaw, Sask., recently, even Defense Minister Bill Graham admitted the present situation is unworkable. One of the problems of procurement in the military is that it takes too long, he said. To emphasize this understatement, he explained that the average military acquisition of any significance in this country takes 12 years. Graham did vow to his Moose Jaw audience to cut that time back, but similar hollow claims have been made repeatedly in the past.
In August 1999, when Alan Williams was appointed assistant deputy minister (materiel), he made it his personal objective to reduce the Defense Department's procurement time frame by no less than 30 per cent. But when Williams left that post earlier this year, industry insiders admitted that the average purchase schedule had actually increased by as much as 50 per cent.
To be fair, part of this discrepancy is a result of the ongoing Adscam kickback scandal, which has necessitated a battery of reviews, audits and direct top-level sign-off on even the most routine of purchases. But the very notion that an equipment purchase takes an average of 12 years needs to be put into perspective.
Over the past 12 years, Canada has had no fewer than nine defence ministers and seven chiefs of defence staff. With government white papers being drafted in 1987, 1994 and 2005, the trend has been to rewrite our defence policy every seven to 11 years, which is notably less time than the average equipment purchase. Coincidence?
Historically, when Canada mobilized for war, the political will and prompt dedication of resources galvanized domestic industry to meet the challenge. The Second World War lasted less than six years, and during that time frame we recruited, equipped and trained nearly a million military personnel. In terms of technological advances, our air force went from flying biplanes to jets.
Of course, not all of the weaponry produced was first class and there were numerous glitches to iron out, often with dire results on the battlefield. But the time frame in which this supply challenge was met sorely undermines the current Defense Department bureaucratic battle cry that these things take time!
For a more current example of the old axiom Where there's a will, there's a way, one need only look at the U.S. example on Iraq. Since its virtually unopposed intervention devolved into a bloody insurgency in the summer of 2003, the American military has designed, tested and built new armoured truck cabs and retrofitted all of its support vehicles in theatre, providing soldiers with better protection against roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. In contrast, Canada's entire fleet of 24-year-old army trucks has been overdue for replacement since 2001.
The government has yet to officially start even the bidding process on a contract that is not expected to begin delivering vehicles until 2008. But I digress. After decades of accumulated bureaucratic redundancy, the defence procurement system has long since forgotten that its primary function is to support combat operations. If Gen. Hillier is sincere about implementing his reforms, he must take a page out of Alexander the Great's playbook.
In 333 BC, when the young Macedonian king was presented with the challenge of untying a massive tangle of ropes known as the Gordian knot, he simply drew out his sword and cut through the bonds. The attendant academics and scholars who had previously tried and failed to unravel the complex knot claimed his approach violated the rules. But Alexander nevertheless solved the problem.
With only a four-year stint as CDS, and procurement stalled at an average of 12 years per purchase, Hillier does not have the option of fiddling about untying an unending pile of red tape. At least not while our troops are deployed in harm's way.