In defence of the DND

Defence Minister Art Eggleton must wish he had a satellite phone right now, even though there’s probably no one in the world he could call for help.

There will be little sympathy for the Department of National Defence (DND) following news reports this week that it spent about $174 million

on a satellite communications system that was never used. According to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s report, the department commissioned the custom-designed equipment in 1991 to improve long-range communication with overseas troops. In the meantime, peacekeeping efforts required some more immediate solutions, so the government bought and leased some cheaper, off-the-shelf tools. These worked so well that by the time the custom-designed satellite system was finished in 1998, no one bothered with it. Almost five years later, it’s reportedly still in storage.

Understandbly, Fraser and the Canadian Alliance are asking for some accountability. They are also questioning a procurement system that allows the same military brass in charge of these kind of projects to serve as the government’s watchdog. It’s a juicy story that leaves Eggleton, who probably knew next to nothing about the whole fiasco, looking irresponsible and incompetent.

“”A lot of big organizations have a great tendency to assume that their needs are so special that they can’t buy something off the shelf,”” said Dr. Carl Christie, a research associate with the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. “”How hard did they look at the stuff that was available off the shelf before they decided to go out and order something custom-built?””

All these questions are valid, but the situation is not as black and white as the headlines would have it appear. I called Jim Hansen, a retired brigadier general and associate executive director with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto.

“”I’m sympathetic to their problems,”” he said. “”If you want a new piece of kit in the military and it costs any more than about $10.35, you have to go through this incredibly bureaucratic procedure, which literally takes years. And if this is a $100 million-plus bucks, I can guarantee you it would take years.””

We all know the government moves too slowly and that the system can’t possibly keep pace with rapid changes in technology, but the DND may have fared no better had it chosen off-the-shelf equipment in the first place. In 2000, the United States Defence Department signed a two-year, US$72 million deal with Iridium for its own long-range communications needs, even though the company had already filed for bankruptcy protection earlier that year. The Iridium situation just got worse over the course of 2000 — so much worse that angry creditor Motorola was threatening to deorbit its satellites if it didn’t get paid. Iridium has managed to survive those turbulent times, but anyone in the States who is familiar with its history probably wouldn’t want soldiers to depend on such a financially unstable supplier.

Canada’s DND probably ordered something custom-made because it wanted the best security money could buy. Given the rapid evolution of security technology, this makes sense — custom projects allow for changes as the technology is being developed. Officials may have thought its security needs were more complex because they are more complex. Individual attention and expertise is a sound strategic investment.

It is easy to criticize in hindsight, but it would have made no sense to wait for the custom-designed system to be completed when we were sending off soldiers to fight in the Gulf War. Instead, the military made exactly the kind of tactical decision they are trained to make — they found something in the interim that filled the gap.

Six months ago, when so many people were desperate to hear from friends and relatives trapped in the World Trade Center, no one would have batted an eyelash at defence spending that would keep our armed forces in better contact with one another. There is obviously a lot of work to be done before we can significantly improve the public sector procurement process, but sometimes opting for best in class is similar to erring on the side of caution.

If nothing else, the DND should dust off the custom-built satellite system and see if it has any technological advantages which have been overlooked so far. If we’re lucky, it will never be put to the test.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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