Friday, February 21, 2014

Day Two at The Military-Industrial Complex Show, 2014 Edition: Desperation Bugaloo

Yeesh! As much as yesterday was interesting, engaging and educational, today was miserable, depressing, and anger-inducing.  Really.  Again, I live-tweeted until my phone battery gave out.  Given how little some folks had to say (see below), the phone lasted longer today. Since I am tired, much of below will be my tweets (until the phone gave out).

To be clear, Minister of National Defence Nicholson was profoundly disappointing. 

He really had nothing to say, so little so that the folks I bumped into the rest of the day (government or not, military or not, retired or not) were pretty insulted.  

I guess the no Q&A stance was something people knew about ahead of time (for him and for the Public Works Minister), but if you cannot chat a bit with the folks who are most engaged in these issues, then find your spine and get it fixed, will ya?  There is message management, which is, of course, this government's obsession, but this goes too far.  Perhaps Nicholson was afraid that he might be asked something like: "hey, if you really support Veterans, why do you make a stink when a particular vet takes advantage of a policy you approved of simply because he happens to support another party (that would be the Leslie controversy).

The next speaker was Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson.  He certainly plays well with the government. 

I would not mind this government's policies if they were just freaking honest about them (More on that later).  So, when the CDS said the word "Tradeoffs", I got kind of excited.  Well, almost.

I asked what he meant by tradeoffs, and .... 

To be fair, given that the new defence review is taking place now, Lawson could not get ahead of the government, but he could have thrown out some options or at least suggest what was being considered or just be clearer that cuts mean a greater acceptance of risk.  Still, he was much better than the Minister of National Defence who preceded him or the Minister of Public Works, Diane Finley (only the second female on the program), who followed him.

When Finley started out, I got my hopes up and then not so much.  

She actually almost indicated that there might be some learning from other places.  And then she made it clear that the industrial benefits (jobs/votes in Canada) would be one of the three top priorities in procurement. 

The government fails to recognize that if it engages in policies favoring Canadian defence firms even when foreign firms would provide better/cheaper stuff, then the foreign governments might not be so willing to buy Canadian stuff.  Tit for tat is basic trade logic, right?

Again, she runs off.  No Q&A.  For a government that poses as being tough (and is tough when it comes to slinging mud at competitors [see Leslie story]), they really have no intestinal fortitude.  The refusal again to answer questions from this crowd is just pathetic.

Things got better when the British Chief of Defence Staff General Houghton spoke.

He mentioned Smart Defence, which is a key NATO effort to try to reduce duplication across the alliance in weapons procurement, and I jumped on it since the Dave and Steve book suggests that increased interdependence is problematic unless you figure out which allies are most compatible.

Admiral Davidson, the Canadian Mil Rep to NATO, presented a fairly straightforward take on the joys and pains of working with NATO.  I gave him a copy of the book, as it might put some of his struggles into perspective.

And then.... the keynote at lunch was given by Karl Zu Guttenberg, who was fired from his post as German Defence Minister due to the discovery that he plagiarized his dissertation.  As a result, I could not take anything he said seriously.
Zu G's talk was on the internet companies and their role in privacy stuff.  Given that people crowd-sourced his plagiarism, I felt he might just be a bit bitter about the internet.  The people were charmed, but I just seethed.  Maybe next year bring in Ollie North to talk about how to handle legislatures?  My phone ran out of juice here, but it might have just been disgusted by the plagiarist.

The first panel of the afternoon had Carleton's Dave Perry moderate a panel on austerity's impact on defence and security with speakers from the US (Michael O' Hanlon), Australia (Admiral du Toit), and France (Bruno Tetrais).  This was a much sharper, more honest conversation.  Perry started it off by presenting the facts of Conservative defence cuts--that Canada is spending less now, controlling for inflation than since 2006 or so.  The Aussie did a nice job of talking about the challenges that Australia has faced.  Tetrais was quote clear about the President driving all decisions in France, that interests have not really changed but more instability. O'Hanlon pushed back against the quasi-isolationist theme, arguing that the US is still engaged even if it is fighting fewer wars than he would like (my, um, interpretation of his comments).

The second panel of the afternoon included retired heads of the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force.  All were pretty good but the retired Admiral Paul Maddison was most clear and ... brutal.  That there would be a smaller navy, that the fiscal reality is ugly, that there needed to be a strategic level discussion with the CDS and the service chiefs with heaps of trust and listening.  Not very promising. 

I did not stay for the final Q&A.  I was tired of my role as question boy (some folks liked that I asked reasonably tough but fair questions, but perhaps not everyone).

It was educational but depressingly so.  This government could be making good hard decisions since it is really hard to be outflanked on defence policy--is the NDP going to position itself as tougher on defence issues and more supportive of the military?  No.  Are the Liberals? Only if the Conservatives open the door.  But having the Ministers come and refuse to talk with--only talk at with overly vetted talking points--the retired and active military officers, government officials, defence contractors, students, defence journalists and a random professor or two was just ... craven.  It might not be time for Game of Thrones to return, but its use of "craven" resonated today. 

As always, Rush has the best take on it:

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