Auditor General condemns F-35 process

Ministers take responsibility for the F-35 debacle? Surely you jest.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a scathing indictment of the Harper government’s F-35 procurement process in his first report, released on April 3rd.

2.80 National Defence did not exercise due diligence in managing the process to replace the CF-18 jets. National Defence did not appropriately consult Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) on the procurement implications of the 2006 MOU for the third phase of the JSF Program or develop an appropriate plan for managing the unique aspects of the acquisition. Problems relating to development of the F-35 were not fully communicated to decision makers, and risks presented to decision makers did not reflect the problems the JSF Program was experiencing at the time. Full life-cycle costs were understated in the estimates provided to support the government’s 2010 decision to buy the F-35. Some costs were not fully provided to parliamentarians. There was a lack of timely and complete documentation to support the procurement strategy decision.

2.81 PWGSC did not demonstrate due diligence in its role as the government’s procurement authority. Although it was not engaged by National Defence until late in the decision-making process, PWGSC relied almost exclusively on assertions by National Defence and endorsed the sole-source procurement strategy in the absence of required documentation and completed analysis.

The Auditor General’s report makes it clear that DND was committed to buying the F-35 long before a proper assessment of Canada’s requirements and options was carried out. Indeed, it makes it clear that a proper assessment was never carried out. DND was determined to proceed whether or not analyses supported its preference (when they existed at all) and whether or not proper procurement procedures were followed (and for the most part they were not).

As University of Ottawa professor Phillipe Lagassé comments, the failings condemned by the Auditor General may be those of the departments concerned, but it is the politicians who were in charge of those departments, principally Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay, who should be held responsible (“Lessons learned from the F-35 aquisition debacle,” Macleans.ca, 3 April 2012):

The Conservative government accepted DND’s logic and allowed the defence department to press ahead. Indeed, although DND and the Chief of the Air Staff are identified as the main culprits in this saga, there is no question that Conservative ministers are also to blame.

The Auditor General’s report highlights that Conservative ministers announced the F-35 purchase in July 2010, two months after PWGSC warned that a sole-source procurement had not been properly explained, and a month before Public Works actually received the statement of requirements that purported to show why the F-35 was the only possible option.

Ministers were aware that the sole-source procurement had not been vetted, yet they endorsed it anyhow. And PWGCS’s ability to enforce proper procurement practices fell apart once the Conservatives publicly declared their intention to move forward with the acquisition that summer.

Once they had announced that the F-35 was Canada’s next fighter, moreover, Conservative ministers refused to question DND’s unsubstantiated estimates and figures until the aircraft’s widely reported cost overruns and technical difficulties could no longer be ignored. Hence, although the Auditor General focuses on the errors and oversights of DND and PWGCS, it is evident that Conservative ministers failed in their responsibilities, too.

More to the point, no ministers should be permitted to avoid their constitutional responsibility for the affairs of the departments, no matter how much ignorance or inexperience they claim. Allowing ministers to shift their responsibility onto their departments or officials, however poorly they performed, would undermine the very bedrock of our system of responsible government.

Of course, that is exactly what is going to happen in this case. The primary minister in question is in no position to claim either ignorance or inexperience — if he is still in office later this year, he will be the longest-serving defence minister since Brooke Claxton (1946-1954). But does anyone expect that Peter MacKay will accept responsibility for this colossal train-wreck? He would have resigned when the report came out, or already have been fired by the Prime Minister, if that were going to happen.

And the Prime Minister himself is certainly not going to accept any blame for his government’s incompetence.

Even the departments themselves refuse to admit fault. As the Auditor General’s report notes, “Both National Defence and Public Works and Government Services Canada disagree with our conclusion that they did not demonstrate due diligence in their respective roles in the replacement of the CF-18 jets.”

Instead, we are promised that the procurement will be conducted according to proper procedures from this date forward — but still without a competition — and offered the half-hearted pretence that the government is now open to the possibility of buying a different aircraft (Steven Chase, “Tories boost oversight – but heads won’t roll – on F-35 purchase,” Globe and Mail, 3 April 2012):

Ottawa will add a new layer of scrutiny to the massive $9-billion procurement, setting up a secretariat led by the Department of Public Works to monitor and manage the process – one that will be overseen by a committee of deputy ministers.

“The secretariat will play the lead coordinating role as the government moves to replace Canada’s CF-18 fleet,” the Conservatives said in a statement. …

The government vowed to evaluate all options for the procurement of Canada’s next-generation fighter – raising doubts about its commitment to the F-35.

Sources have cautioned, however, against interpreting this to mean that the Conservative government is actively considering purchasing a different jet.

“The F-35 train is still on the track,” one government source told The Globe and Mail this week.

Photo credit: DND

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