Ottawa set aside $1.6 billion for outside help with military challenges

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has put out a call for proposals aimed at dealing with defence and security threats.

Priorities include surveillance, cyber security, PTSD, female representation in the Canadian Forces

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is calling on innovators and researchers to submit their proposals on ways Canada can better address its security and defence challenges. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government is asking universities, companies and others to help the military with several pressing challenges, including how to better treat PTSD, increase female recruitment, monitor Canada's waterways and defend against cyberattacks.

The request was made by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Monday and comes with some hefty financial incentives: $313 million for various projects over the next five years and a total $1.6 billion over the next 20 years.

"Our government will look beyond the traditional defence community and scientists and look to all Canadians to find the solutions we need to support, equip and train our service members," Sajjan said at the University of Calgary.

The Liberals initially announced the Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security program in last year's defence policy, but potential partners are only now being allowed to apply for funding and begin working in earnest.

The government has identified a total of 16 specific defence and security challenges that it hopes to address with the initial funds, which also includes working with artificial intelligence and improving soldier performance.

"Innovation, technology and research are critical to Canada's security and safety," Sajjan said. "They help us mitigate threats, stay ahead of our enemies and meet evolving security challenges around the world."

The previous Conservative government made a concerted push to grow the defence industry by setting aside millions of dollars to develop new products for global markets, particularly in areas where Canada already had an advantage.

Commercial benefits a bonus

But defence officials said during a technical briefing that the new funds aren't specifically intended to support industry, but to come up with solutions to problems facing the military more quickly; any commercial benefits will be a bonus.

Sajjan nonetheless indicated that the government would make allowances to help companies and others develop their ideas, including testing products in the field with the Canadian Forces.

The list of areas that the government is targeting also includes monitoring social media, identifying the source of cyberattacks, non-GPS navigation and identifying objects in space.

Canada's defence industry has seen several hits and misses in recent years, including several deals that have raised questions about human rights and Canada's moral standing.

Those include a $15-billion contract with Saudi Arabia for the provision of light-armoured vehicles and the planned sale of military helicopters to the Philippines, which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte scrapped following an uproar in early February.

The Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, which represents about 800 defence companies, says the sector employs about 63,000 people and generates $10 billion in annual revenues — 60 per cent of which come from exports.