Harper Government's Attempts To Buy Navy Ships Blocked By Bureaucrats: Docs

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OTTAWA — The bureaucracy at National Defence helped scuttle two attempts by the Harper government to acquire helicopter landing ships over the last few years, documents show.

The most high-profile of the cases involved the sale by France of two Mistral-class warships, which had originally been built for Russia, but were on the auction block after the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation show former defence minister Jason Kenney received conflicting advice from top civilian and military commanders, but decided to ignore it and made a last-minute, personal pitch to French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Defence experts say the memos and briefings makes the current defence policy review by the Liberals more important because they underscore how the lack of clear direction can lead to in-fighting among bureaucrats with competing visions of what is necessary.

jason kenney
Jason Kenney speaks at a press conference for procurement of new naval vehicles on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Kenney and Le Drian held a teleconference last June, a few months before President Francois Hollande's government decided to sell the 21,000-tonne vessels to Egypt.

The former Conservative government was interested in acquiring landing ships, which can carry troops, equipment and helicopters, as a way to boost the military's ability to respond quickly to trouble spots and humanitarian disasters around the world.

The documents reveal that, prior to discussions with the French, the Conservatives examined the idea of acquiring large, surplus British Bay-class amphibious ships — a proposal defence bureaucrats also shot down.

In his advice over the Mistral sale, deputy defence minister John Forster acknowledged that having such a capability would be a "strategic asset" to Canada, particularly in the Arctic, and allow the country to be "more self-sufficient in international operations, reduce dependency on allies, and assume greater leadership roles."

Multiple arguments given against deal

But then he went on — in a June 19, 2015 briefing — to provide a litany of reasons why the Conservative government should not go ahead, notably because the ships did not fit within the existing defence investment plans and would put unforeseen money pressures on National Defence "in the magnitude of billions of Canadian dollars."

Forster told Kenney the same arguments were used a few years earlier to persuade the government not to pursue a deal with the British.

He suggested the navy didn't have enough sailors and those it had were not trained for such a ship. As well, jetty infrastructure would need to be updated and helicopters modified. Finally, there weren't enough bureaucrats to guide the acquisition.

The briefing suggested it would take up to six years before the brand new ships were up to Canadian standards in terms of communications and weapons. The documents also raised concern that buying ships from the French might conflict with the National Shippbuilding Strategy, a principal aim of which is to build warships in Canada.

Forster put forward the arguments, even though the documents show National Defence had an independent report that mostly argued the opposite — an analysis that was initially not provided to Kenney.

Dave Perry, an analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says officials seemed bent on giving more reasons not to proceed, than in providing a balanced perspective.

He said the concern about money was legitimate, but the Conservative cabinet wasn't even given the opportunity to reflect on pros and cons of adding an amphibious capability to the navy.

"My read of this is that there was interest up top, but it was torpedoed down below," Perry said. "The strongest thing was the funding issue, but the notes made clear that if extra incremental funding became available, the department had other priorities."

That, he said, is not the way it is supposed to work and it's the government that should be setting the direction.

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