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Book Reviews

Book cover: The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter

The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter, by Aaron Plamondon

Reviewed by Katherine Doucet

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The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter
by Aaron Plamondon
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2010
288 pages, $85.00(HC), $32.95(PB)
ISBN: 978-0-7748-1714-1 (HC)
ISBN : 078-0-7748-1715-8 (PB)

Reviewed by Katherine Doucet

The story of the Sea King maritime helicopter is perhaps one of the most widely publicized cases of a military operational requirement falling victim to Canadian politics and the government’s convoluted procurement process.  From the introduction of the requirement for helicopters in the Anti-Submarine Warfare role in the 1950s, through the purchase of the first Sea Kings in the 1960s and the three decade struggle to replace an expired fleet, the Sea King’s history provides an excellent example of the Canadian military’s continual battle for the resources to carry out its assigned tasks.

In his work, The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter, Aaron Plamondon uses the story of the Sea King helicopter to pointedly illustrate how a lack of government support, and a complicated, hazard-ridden procurement process have negatively affected the military’s capability, and Canada’s image on the international stage.

The procurement of military weapons and equipment in Canada has often been controlled by partisan political considerations – not by a clear desire to increase the capability of the military.  Actual military strength has typically been given a low priority by Canada’s civilian leaders.  As a result, Canada has often failed throughout its history to be effective in the design, production, or even purchase of weapons and equipment necessary for its military to carry out the priorities of the civil power. To secure even the most modest materiel, military officials have had to comply with a succession of rules that can only be described as illogical from the standpoint of military performance.  Much like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, they have had to run twice as fast just to stay in the same place.

~Aaron Plamondon

Anyone who has ever dealt with a major equipment procurement project will likely reflect upon their experience as one of pain and anguish. This occurs as one struggles to move a project forward, responding to the myriad questions and requirements established by semi-interested bureaucrats seemingly intent upon nothing more than causing delays and avoiding costly decisions. Plamondon effectively sets the tone in his Preface, which provides an overview of the text, and portrays the ill-fated Sea King replacement project much like an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. The level of detail provided in this book is a credit to Plamondon’s determination to shed light upon an issue that has been riddled with controversy and cover-up.  As former Sea King pilot Colonel (ret’d) John Cody has expressed, “… this is a subject that is so vast that it will take historians fifty years to sort it all out.”

In the opening chapters, Plamondon provides an in-depth lesson with respect to the complicated Canadian Defence Procurement System, as well as a detailed history of procurement in Canada from the end of the First World War, in which he illustrates the pitfalls of our nation’s reliance upon foreign military procurement. Chapter by chapter, he offers a logical, yet painful account of the Sea King’s history, from the identification of the initial requirement and arrival of the first helicopters, through 50 years of failed attempts to navigate the political waters and procure a much overdue replacement. His projection for the success of the most recent replacement contract, the Maritime Helicopter Project (MHP), signed with Sikorsky in 2004, does not offer much hope of a successful end to this Sea King replacement saga.

The final budget for the MHP is unknown. The final delivery date is unknown. It is even likely that the $117 million will not be enough to make the current aircraft compliant with Canada’s needs. There has been no explanation of which design changes that money is for, and more amendments will almost certainly be needed.

The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter, is well written, painstakingly researched, and definitely not to be taken lightly. Plamondon has created an excellent reference text for anyone conducting research on the Sea King and Canada’s maritime helicopter projects, as well as those courageous enough to attempt an understanding of the politically-charged realm of military equipment procurement.

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Major Katherine Doucet, CD, an army logistics officer with support experience on UN and NATO deployments, is currently serving as the Formation Logistics Officer with the Canadian Defence Academy Headquarters in Kingston, Ontario.

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