Military procurements usually begin with the drawing up of a “statement of operational requirements,” which manufacturers then use to prepare bids. But more often than not, the generals and admirals have already made their decision and “fix the specs” to secure the equipment they want.
Defence officials decided the CF-18 replacements needed stealth technology, thus excluding all aircraft other than the F-35. They narrowed the field for the fixed-wing search and rescue project by specifying a minimum cabin length just 15 centimetres greater — and a cruising speed just 12 knots faster — than the Spanish-made EADS C-295. They set a minimum size for Canada’s maritime helicopter replacement that excluded the Sikorsky Seahawk, the workhorse of the U.S. navy’s rotary wing fleet.
Officials like to buy so-called “paper planes” that are only in the design phase, since this offers the possibility of having the very latest and flashiest kit. But there are risks involved with unbuilt, unproven designs. The F-35 design proved grossly optimistic, leading to long delays, much-increased costs, and less than expected performance. The U.S. Department of Defense has already downgraded its specifications for the plane.
In the case of the planned Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters chosen to replace the Sea Kings, the generals and admirals added new electronics and weapons systems onto the design after the procurement was approved and a contract signed. All the additional equipment proved too heavy for the engines, which meant that more powerful engines had to be designed and fitted, which in turn required a lengthy and expensive full re-engineering of the aircraft.
Defence officials secure approval for these “paper planes” by telling ministers that Canadian companies involved in the initial production of cutting-edge military equipment will reap significant rewards when other countries purchase the same equipment later. The problem is that new designs fail more often than they succeed, and other countries shy away from equipment that underperforms or is overly delayed. No country apart from Canada has selected the Cyclone. Sales of the F-35 are far below the projected level, diminishing any economic benefits and driving up the per-unit cost.
Officials also lowball costs, or fail to inform ministers about maintenance, infrastructure and other “life-cycle” expenses related to the purchase. For the F-35s, defence officials said the cost would be $9.7 billion. The parliamentary budget officer said $29.3 billion. The auditor general said $25.1 billion. When the government brought in the accounting firm KPMG to provide some clarity, it said $45.8 billion.
If the numbers were not so very large, the audacity of the officials might be funny.