A new internal report by the Department of National Defence is casting a spotlight on a persistent problem undermining efforts to replace Canada’s aging military equipment: a critical shortage of procurement experts.
The report was recently published online following a review of the military procurement system, which found “a large proportion of vacant positions” within the section responsible for overseeing the department’s procurement efforts.
How large? Fully 30 per cent of roughly 4,200 positions were unfilled at the end of May 2022, with the report warning, “A lack of trained resources puts the department at risk of failing to meet defence policy obligations.”
That is a reference to the federal Liberals’ 2017 defence policy, which promised to buy much-needed new equipment for the military over 20 years, including the purchase of warships, aircraft, drones, armoured vehicles and advanced radars.
Many of those projects have already been launched but are suffering delays, forcing the military to continue using obsolete equipment — and in some cases retire gear before replacements are ready — while adding billions in extra costs.
“Much like any knowledge-based industry, finding and hiring the right people with the right mix of knowledge, experience and expertise is a challenge that (the department) is actively addressing,” Defence Department spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email Thursday.
“Furthermore, there is sustained private-sector competition for experienced acquisition experts, which has impacted efforts to onboard additional team members.”
The department is working to better train and develop its employees to ensure the timely delivery of “critical” military gear, he added.
Experts are skeptical, noting the Defence Department has been struggling for years to retain enough procurement officials to move projects through the system in a timely and efficient manner.
“This has been a longstanding, chronic issue that hasn’t seen any resolution,” said David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and one of Canada’s top experts on military procurement.
“And if we really want to see these big projects get accomplished, and new kit get bought and delivered to troops, then the (shortage) is one of the (problems) that needs to get fixed.”
National Defence’s materiel section had only a handful of procurement specialists, many of whom were inexperienced, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives unveiled their own defence policy in 2008.
Gutted by the Jean Chretien-era cuts to the military of the 1990s, the section struggled to produce accurate cost estimates and schedules for the billions of dollars in new military equipment the Tories promised.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised during their successful 2015 federal election campaign that they would hire more procurement staff, and senior defence officials reported some success over the next few years.
Yet the problem has nonetheless persisted even as the Defence Department has been tasked with overseeing the largest recapitalization of Canada’s military in a generation through the Liberals’ defence policy.
The result has been delays to numerous projects, to the detriment of the military and Canadian taxpayers.
The impact isn’t abstract, as insiders have blamed a lack of procurement specialists for some of the problems plaguing the government’s efforts to build a new fleet of warships to replace its aging Halifax-class frigates and buy new drones.
Senior officers also identified a shortage of human resources as a key challenge in the planned delivery of new Army equipment during a presentation to industry representatives earlier this week.
“These are complex projects, and the amount of precision and care and various accountability mechanisms that we’ve built in make them very intensive in terms of human resources,” said Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé, who previously served on an independent panel charged with assessing military procurements.
“You end up in a situation where you’re pushing a limited number of people to do something that, organizationally, would require far more. And that leads to complications.”
The Defence Department has often turned to outside contractors to help with various aspects of procurement projects, including the provision of management and engineering services, to make up for the shortage of in-house specialists.
Yet in last month’s federal budget, the Liberals ordered departments, including National Defence, to cut back on the use of outside contractors as they faced heat for the government’s increased reliance on such firms.
Perry said such cuts have the potential to make the current situation worse.
“If you lose that horsepower, that is going to exacerbate the situation,” he said.
“As those budget cuts are being provisioned, I hope people are being cognizant of the potential impacts (on the military) because they do a lot of things that directly support defence procurement.”