Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bill Graham Gets One Right

Contrary to Blahgian belief, there are Blogging Tories out there who are perfectly willing to give the Libranos credit when they do something right for a change. Case in point: Defence Minister Bill Graham.

Last week, Mr. Graham had declared a $12.2-billion, three-aircraft procurement plan dead, after sharp criticism of the proposed bidding process from sources in the Canadian defence industry.

But over the weekend the Defence Minister revived what the military considers to be the most important part of its plan, a $4.6-billion purchase of 16 transport planes, because he thinks it is both politically feasible and urgently needed, sources say. A formal announcement is expected today.

"Graham was the one who rolled up his sleeves and said we've got to get something done here," a senior Defence Department official said.

Critics say the performance requirements had been deliberately crafted to rule out all but a single aircraft in two cases -- the Hercules C-130J transport and the Chinook CH-47 helicopter.

There is deep unhappiness within the Canadian defence and aerospace industries that the perceived front-runner for search-and-rescue aircraft is the C-27J, made by Italian-based Alenia, and not Bombardier's modified Dash-8, sources say.

But Defence officials contend that their requirements, including first delivery within three years, simply reflect the forces' needs.

Damian Brooks is more of an Air Force enthusiast than I, and even he is complimentary:

Good on Graham for salvaging what he could. Given the quick comeback time, I'm guessing this was a planned fallback position - which speaks volumes about the improvement in how business is being conducted in Rick Hillier's NDHQ: stop whining, and start working smart to get as much as you can as quickly as you can. The fact that this surprised even uniformed sources below the top tier is also a good sign.
Of course, the Tory defence critic doesn't see things quite that way:

[Defence critic Gordon] O'Connor charged that the Liberals are rushing the plan through to claim it as an accomplishment in the coming election fight.

"It's so he can go on the campaign trail and say we've ordered transport aircraft," he said in an interview. "Because what else can they say? There's been not one soldier recruited, either regular force or reserve. They actually have achieved nothing, in a year and a half."

It's tempting to come down hard on Mr. O'Connor, but we have to remember that criticizing defence policy and decisions is in fact his job. Besides which, the Sea King replacement debacle pretty much doomed the Liberals' reputation when it comes to defence procurement, so it's going to take them a very long time to get themselves out of the doghouse when it comes to national defence.

As for the "open competition" matter, there are a couple of things to bear in mind:

First, the Forces are way overdue for replenishment of their airlift capability. There is a demonstrated need for this class of aircraft -- humanitarian aid, search and rescue, etc.

Second, the Hercules is a good aircraft, having been used in the CF for years. (I've ridden in one once; they're noisy and facilities basically amount to a bucket tied to a bulkhead, but they get the job done.) The platform has an impressive record, and the tendency is always to go with an aircraft you're familiar with, instead of learning something completely new just because it's made in Canada. (It's more important that the pilots like to fly'em, than Canadians make'em.)

By fast-tracking the Hercules procurement, Bill Graham is finally moving away from the Chr├ętien-era "we know better than the CF" mindset that resulted in millions of dollars being wasted resolving the Sea King replacement issue. Granted, it probably won't help him keep his job after the election, but it's at least a step in the right direction.