Canada's expensive war toys

Auditor general warns that Harper government is buying planes, ships and vehicles, but isn't budgeting to keep them operating.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are grim warnings from the federal auditor general this week about the fact that the Tory government is shelling out a mountain of money for military equipment, but might not be tucking away the cash to keep it all operating.

At the centre of the concern is the way the government arranges repairs and maintenance for its $30-billion dollar fleet of aircraft, ships and land vehicles -- which the auditor's report calls inefficient and a threat to the military's long-term ability to do its job.

The government had adopted a process of merging support contracts into its purchase orders -- as with the F-35 purchses now under way. The move leaves the military with little flexibility and weakens its self-sufficiency, the report says.

Worse, only about 70 per cent of the cash needed for long-term support of the fleet is actually being set aside, it warns.

The Canadian Press has the story:

OTTAWA -- Canada's auditor general is raising questions about the practice of contracting out maintenance on military equipment and warns National Defence may not be setting aside enough cash to keep planes, ships and tanks in tip-top condition.

John Wiersema's report says the practice of awarding in-service maintenance contacts to defence manufacturers is eroding the military's ability to care for its own gear -- and creating a dependence that can be costly.

His report has implications for some major purchases, including the F-35 stealth fighter, which has become a lightning rod for opposition criticism.

Whenever the military buys new aircraft and even armoured vehicles, it usually awards the manufacturer a long-term service contract, which can run up to 20 years and be worth billions of dollars.

Wiersema's report says the Defence Department has identified "significant risks in this approach.''

The audit also found defence bureaucrats don't believe enough money has been set aside in future budgets to properly maintain the roughly $60-billion in new planes, ships and vehicles that the Harper government intends to buy over the next two decades.

"There is a significant gap between the demand for maintenance and repair services and the funds available,'' said the report.

Up to $140 billion has been budgeted for spare parts, maintenance and training over the next two decades.

Despite the large figure, "National Defence has indicated it is likely that its long-term investment plan for new equipment has allocated insufficient funds for equipment life-cycle costs.''

The comment echoes the parliamentary budget officer's criticism of the F-35 purchase, which the Harper government insists will cost no more than $16 billion, including 20 years of maintenance.

Kevin Page's report last March, which caused a firestorm in the House of Commons before the last federal election, called into question whether the overall figures, including maintenance, were accurate.

Defence experts have said it is tough to know how much it will cost to keep the stealth jet flying since it is a developmental aircraft with no repair history.

The military's records say it spends $2 billion a year on all repairs, but the auditor's report says the figure is likely higher.

The warning comes at time the navy is preparing to contract out more of its support to the private sector.

Maintenance on the Harper government's Arctic patrol ship fleet is expected to be in private hands, with civilian contractors even accompanying the ships on deployment, according to access-to-information documents obtained by The Canadian Press.

The latest audit also raised concern about the government's ability to track the costs associated with military repairs and complained that it had warned the Defence Department about the same problem a decade ago.

"There are long-standing deficiencies in information management systems used to support decision-making for maintenance and repair activities, first raised by us in a 2001 audit,'' said the report.

"As a result, National Defence lacks complete, reliable and integrated information on the total cost of maintenance and repair because some of the costs -- salaries and infrastructure -- are not captured in its asset management information systems.''

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