Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Defence Salesfolks Are Damned Good at Their Job

Yesterday, during the coffee break at the Atlantic Council of Canada event on Afghanistan, I was chatting with someone and somehow raised the question of whether the Canadian government should spend more for ships built in Canada (after a 20 year or so lapse in any shipbuilding, which means raising shipyards from the dead) or buy ships from abroad.  And, what do you know, this guy turns out to be a former naval officer and currently employed by a major defence contractor.  Kind of like last year when I got braced by an F-35 salesman. 

The good news is these guys are good at their jobs--they are damned persuasive.  However, I also know that they are not impartial dispensers of the facts about defence procurement, so I talk everything they say with a huge dose of salt.  It simply has to be cheaper to buy ships abroad than starting up long-dead shipyards.  Canada simply does not have the expertise.  In a time of austerity and as each defence procurement project spirals upwards in costs, choosing to build in Canada seems to be a bridge too far.  Perhaps when things are flush, this would make sense.  But they are not flush right now.

Soon, the Canadian Navy and the Canadian government will face the same choice here as with planes--getting less with more or not.  The F35 is very expensive, so it means Canada will have to buy fewer (unless it ignores basic math and denies reality).  Buying expensive ships means buying fewer ultimately. 

The problem is that I am not an expert on defence procurement or on the specific weapons programs.  I am just a scholar of politics and have seen this show before.  So, I cannot debate well with the expert salespeople on this.  I know that what they are saying contains a dose of b.s. but I cannot articulate the specifics of alternative programs.  I do think the media has been doing a pretty good job on conveying the problematic choices that have been made and the alternatives that have been left behind. 

Building ships in Canada makes sense for politics--it means jobs in places where folks might vote for the Conservatives.  It does not make sense for the timely and cost efficient replacement of the current batch of old ships.  I tend to be a realist and a free trader when it comes to defence procurement--that I want my tax dollars to go to the shipyards that could best do the job, even if it means employing Danes or South Koreans.  I don't like to see defence policy become industrial policy--where the government subsidizes the private sector.  I don't like it when the US does that with Boeing, and I don't like it in Canada when very scarce dollars are being spent on shipyards that have not proven they can do the job.  But I understand it.

Will this make me more careful about speaking up when chatting with retired military folks who are likely to be working for a defence contractor?  No, careful about speaking up is not in my nature, just as it is not in the nature of defence salesfolks to admit that their company's products may be too expensive.

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