OTTAWA — Canada's ruling Conservative Party government is unveiling a series of high-profile defense contracts to counter claims from political opposition parties it has bungled military procurement.

In the run-up to this fall's federal election, the government is announcing contacts ranging from the acquisition of new trucks to the purchase of radars for the Canadian Army and communications gear for soldiers.

On July 16, Defence Minister Jason Kenney announced that Mack Defense of Allentown, Pennsylvania, has been awarded two contracts totaling CAN $834 million (US $642 million) to provide standard military pattern trucks and related equipment for the Canadian Forces. The contract includes the delivery of 1,500 trucks to be used mainly by the Canadian Army.

"This announcement is a great example of how we're keeping our defence procurement strategy commitments," Kenney said in a statement.

Public Works Minister Diane Finley, who is responsible for government procurement, confirmed other announcements will be coming in the next few months. Those include the acquisition of a medium-range radar to allow Army units to detect and locate the source of incoming mortar and artillery fire and the announcement of the winning firm for the first phase of a future soldier equipment communications program. Finley noted they will show the Conservative Party is delivering on its promises to the Canadian Forces.

But opposition members of Parliament (MPs) dismiss the announcements as electioneering and a smokescreen to hide how the government has mismanaged billion-dollar military purchases.

By law, Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper must hold an election on Oct. 19. The official campaign has yet to be started but that hasn't stopped a non-stop parade of announcements.

On June 19, Kenney and Finley unveiled the first six new Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters. Although the helicopters, ordered by the previous Liberal Party government, were being delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force eight years behind schedule, Kenney took the opportunity to highlight the efforts by his administration to manage a difficult program.

"We should have been at this point many, many years ago," Kenney said. "We're back on track."

On June 23, Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino announced that Colt Canada would be supplying new rifles for the Canadian Rangers who patrol the Arctic.

Since June 29, government ministers and Conservative Party MPs have held 20 news conferences to announce minor infrastructure improvements to military bases and armories.

Joyce Murray, defense critic for the Liberal Party, said the announcements are geared to the upcoming election and designed to shift attention away from the Conservatives' dismal record on military procurement.

"The government likes to promote this myth they have re-equipped the Canadian Forces where in reality they just continue to make promises, and most of what they have promised has never been delivered," she said.

Jack Harris, the defense critic for the New Democratic Party, the official opposition in the House of Commons, pointed to the much delayed purchase of new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft as an example of the Conservatives' failure on military equipment.

"They announced that in 2006 and very little has happened since," Harris said.

But Finley said bids for that CAN $3.1 billion project will be submitted to the government by various aerospace firms by the end of September.

Government officials, however, have not been able to say when a contract would be signed or aircraft delivered.

Harris also noted the military trucks will be delivered eight years behind schedule.

The Conservative government has had to deal dealt with a series of high-profile failed or controversial procurements over the last several years, sparking criticism in both the House of Commons and news media.

The CAN $2 billion project to purchase new close-combat armored vehicles for the Army was canceled. The Army trucks to be announced in the next several weeks are eight years behind schedule.

Canada's purchase of the F-35 fighter aircraft was thrown into turmoil several years ago after a report by the government's auditor found that National Defence Department officials withheld key information from Parliament about the jet, underestimated costs and didn't follow proper procurement rules.

In 2008 t The procurement of a fleet of supply ships for the Royal Canadian Navy was scuttled in 2008. It has been restarted but the ships aren't expected until 2021.

The acquisition of New Arctic offshore patrol ships, which were to be in the water in 2012, have yet to be built. The first of six ships on order is expected to be ready in 2018.

But both Finley and Kenney have insisted the problems with procurement are not as bad as portrayed. Kenney has noted that the purchases of C-17s from Boeing and a fleet of C-130J transport aircraft from Lockheed Martin proceeded smoothly.

Last year, in an attempt to improve the defense equipment acquisition process, the government brought in a new procurement strategy that highlights better communication with industry and long-range planning.

On May 28, Kenney announced to industry representatives at the CANSEC 2015 defense trade show that an independent panel would also be created to provide more oversight into procurements.

"We want sign-off, essentially, from all the key stakeholders in principle on a project at the front end and an independent panel to affirm that," he said at the time. "Once the panel is fully operational, it will make a paradigm shift in the way we conduct defense procurement by enabling greater scrutiny and oversight of project requirements earlier in the procurement process."

Email: dpugliese@defensenews.com

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