Keynote Address by Minister of National Defence Bill Blair to the CDA Institute Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence


March 7, 2024

Good morning everyone.

First of all, let me acknowledge and thank Youri Cormier and the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and their President, General Guy Thibault.  Thank you for holding this valuable dialogue year after year and I also want to say how difficult it is, and this isn't the first time I've had to follow General Thibault to the mic.  It's always a bit of a challenge, but it's always a privilege, sir. 

I'd also like to thank all of you for joining us here today. To the Senators, to the members of the House of Commons, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, distinguished guests from around the world, and if I may, I'd like to also extend a particularly warm welcome to my Latvian counterpart and good friend, Defence Minister Andris Sprūds, who's joined us all the way from Riga. He is here as well to acknowledge the important relationship that has developed between Canada and Latvia as part of our NATO commitments in that country. 

I also want to take the opportunity to recognize of Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre. General, this is an opportunity to thank you and I hope I have many more opportunities to thank you for your decades of service to this country. 

Colleagues and friends, as you all know and as your report last night tells you, we live in times of great challenge and uncertainty.  Whether it's the war in Ukraine, conflict in the Middle East or tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Whether it's new threats to our Arctic sovereignty, rapid technological advances, changes to our climate.  In our interconnected world, all of these challenges are having a direct impact on Canada and on Canadians, and this is having a direct impact as well on our national security, our prosperity and our way of life. And as some global actors seek to challenge the international rules that we have built up, Canada is and must increase its investments in security and defence. 

But let me acknowledge we have done much work, we have much more work to do. We're boosting our contributions to our international alliances, we're doubling down to protect the rules-based international order that has kept us safe for nearly 80 years. We've read recently in the press, and I actually want to thank Murray Brewster for his reporting yesterday, bringing to the attention of Canadians the state of readiness and preparation of the Canadian Armed Forces. 

And as General, as former Admiral Mark Norman stated, this is decades in the making.  I really see no point in us spending a lot of time trying to find out how we got to this state.  We must focus on what needs to be done, and we must get to work.  We've got a great deal of work to do and that's what I'd like to talk to you briefly about today. 

First of all, the war in Ukraine.  I was just in Kyiv with Prime Minister Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Freeland to mark the two-year anniversary of Putin's full-scale invasion of that country.  I had the opportunity to see up close the devastation that Russian forces have caused. We met Ukrainian troops who bravely defended the Hostomel Airport in the early hours of the war, one of Russia's first major strategic failures, and a sign of things to come.  I had a chance to witness firsthand the unbreakable spirit of the Ukrainian people as they continue to fight for their homeland and their freedom and their future, to be frank, which is also our future. 

Canada has been there to support our Ukrainian friends from day one, in collaboration with more than 50 allies and partners.  And while in Kyiv, the Prime Minister signed a historic security cooperation agreement with Ukraine.  It lays out our long-term support for Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity, it protects its people and helps to rebuild their economy and create a stable and secure future for that country.  It includes over $3 billion in financial military aid for this year alone.  And altogether so far, Canada's committed more than $4 billion in military assistance since the war began; everything from tanks to armoured vehicles to ammunition to drones. 

We've also been helping Ukraine protect its systems from malicious cyber activity and sharing vital intelligence. And I'm very proud, we've trained members of the Ukrainian military, their combat medics and sappers in Poland, new recruits in the United Kingdom, junior officers in Latvia, and many more.  And in fact, since 2015, we trained more than 40,000 members of Ukraine's military through Operation UNIFIER.  We've been teaching everything from combat survivability to patrol tactics to demining.  And earlier this week, I had the opportunity and privilege to visit CFB Edmonton to meet with Canadian troops there who have trained Ukrainians with lifesaving demining skills. 

We must keep going because Ukraine's fight for freedom is a fight for democracy itself.  And when despots like Vladimir Putin invade their neighbours at will, it undermines the international rules that have kept us safe for over 80 years and it threatens the sovereignty and security of all nations.  The world mustn't stand for it and I want to assure you Canada will not stand for it.  We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. 

And on that note today, and because I'm a politician, I'll make a few announcements. I'm announcing a new initiative that will keep Canadian innovators developing solutions that will help Ukraine move forward and clear their mine fields.  Through DND's IDEaS Program, we're launching the challenge to Canadian innovators in English and French and in Ukrainian.  Successful applicants could receive up to $1 million to develop their concepts and our goal is to generate solutions that can be demonstrated to Canadian and Ukrainian military experts as early as next year.  This project will fund the best concepts that could save Ukrainian lives and protect crucial Ukrainian military equipment. 

I'll also share with you that when I went to Ukraine and the General and I had an opportunity to meet with their Minister of Strategic Defence, he told us that they've learned a great deal about fighting the Russians over the past two years and they're willing to share that learning with us.  And I think that's an opportunity not only for our military, but the Canadian industry as well, because the nature of warfare has evolved very significantly on the Ukrainian battlefields and we have an opportunity to learn from that experience to apply it to our own future. 

In addition to some of the demining expertise that Ukraine has received from us, they've also made it very clear they need artillery ammunition.  They need it now and they need it for the long term.  We've donated tens of thousands of rounds of NATO standard 155 artillery ammunition to Ukraine.  But Ukraine needs much more ammunition and, quite frankly, so does Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces.  So today I'm announcing that we are investing $4.4 million with General Dynamics Ordinance and Tactical Systems, and IMT Defence.  This funding is going to enable these Canadian manufacturers to develop detailed plans to modernize production and ramp up production capacity for 155 ammunition. 

This planning is going to facilitate the next steps.  We've already made investments to increase production of artillery and ammunition here in Canada, but as I have acknowledged, there's a great deal more work to do.  And I'd like to assure Canadians that we are working with industry right now in ways to substantially increase the production of this ammunition in Canada, and I hope that we will have much more to say about this in the very near future, because we need to increase our ability to defend ourselves, to support our allies and to arm our friends in Ukraine. 

And as we support Ukraine, we're also helping to protect NATO's eastern flank as I referenced earlier when I introduced my good friend from Latvia.  We're proud to lead NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia.  We're more than doubling our military presence in Latvia to full brigade size, with up to 2,200 persistently deployed troops by 2026.  And we are working hard to make sure that those troops have the equipment that they need.  Canada has already deployed 15 Leopard 2 tanks to Latvia and starting this summer, we'll begin deploying helicopters as well. 

Last year at this conference, my predecessor, Minister Anand, announced that Canada would use urgent operational requirements to acquire additional equipment for our Latvian Forces. 

We require new anti-tank weapons, air defence capabilities and counter drone equipment.  And today, I can tell you that all of those contracts are now signed and will begin delivering this much needed and essential armaments to our troops in Latvia later this year.  This is an example of defence procurement done differently.  It's also an example of defence procurement done right. 

We're also bringing our cyber expertise to our NATO allies, including in Latvia, where we've deployed military and civilian personnel to help protect critical networks there.  And in fact, a report that was published by the British House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee stated that Canada is with the UK and I quote, "at the head of the pack on cyber security." 

As NATO marks its 75th anniversary, Canada's commitment to the alliance is strong and will get stronger.  As the Prime Minister committed in Vilnius last year, we must and will do more. 

If I may now move briefly to the Indo-Pacific, which is another priority for Canada.  As a Pacific nation ourselves, the Indo-Pacific is crucial to our security and prosperity.  Six of our top trading partners are located in that region, and that's why we're building closer ties with many of those partners.  As part of our Indo-Pacific Strategy, Canada is deploying a greater number of ships and personnel to the region.  And last year, for the first time in decades, we deployed three warships into the Indo-Pacific.  We sailed through the Taiwan Strait.  We will continue to do so and we will continue to do more. 

We're hard at work to strengthen our defence relationships with likeminded partners, which is why last September, Canada and ASEAN launched our strategic partnership.  And it's why we have signed a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation with the Philippines in January. 

The Indo-Pacific is vital to our future and so, Canada must do more to maintain a persistent presence so that we can work with our partners and allies to strengthen the rules and norms that keep Indo-Pacific nations safe. 

None of this work around the world is possible if we are not strong at home here in Canada and secure in North America.  But we need to be clear eyed about the challenges we face.  The Arctic is warming at four times the global average.  The Arctic is becoming more accessible, which means that geography no longer affords us the security that we once relied upon.  We know that Russia and China harbour Arctic ambitions and these have major security implications for Canada.  It is incumbent upon us to meet the moment. 

Through Canada's NORAD modernization plan, we're investing almost $40 billion to modernize our NORAD capabilities over the next 20 years.  This modernization is going to be absolutely essential to our national security.  It will strengthen the extraordinary alliance that Canada and the United States share, an alliance unlike any other in the world.  Our NORAD investments are taking shape and we will be building a new Arctic Over the Horizon Radar that will vastly improve our threat detection.  We'll be upgrading our infrastructure in places like Alert, Inuvik, Yellowknife and Goose Bay in consultation with Indigenous and Northern partners.  And where possible, we will be investing in airfields, roadways, infrastructure that'll prioritize dual use that can meet the needs of the military and benefit our communities in the North. 

Beyond NORAD modernization, in November, I announced that Canada is purchasing up to 16 P-8 Poseidon aircraft, an investment of nearly $10.4 billion.  These are state-of-the-art multi-mission aircraft which strengthens Canada's ability to conduct maritime and overland surveillance here at home and to support our allies.  They're among the major defence procurements currently underway in Canada.  And as I've said, we have much more to do. 

With respect to the, to the Air Force – I'm pleased to see General Kenny here this morning – we've been able to complete the purchase acquisition of a new fleet of 88 F-35 fifth generation fighters.  It takes time to deliver them, but they will be delivered and they'll be implemented into our Air Force.  We're also investing in new tanker and transport aircraft and we have begun to deliver up to nine of those, those aircraft in the immediate future.  As I've said, we also acquired the P-8 contract and 11 new drones.  These investments are going to give our Air Force the capability that it requires to fulfill the mission that we task them with. 

And at the same time, let me also acknowledge it takes time to deliver this equipment.  We're going to have to make sure that we maintain our current fleet of aircraft to make sure that we can continue to do the missions required of us.  We're making significant new investments in the, in the Navy.  We’ll have 15 new Canadian Surface Combatant ships, Arctic offshore patrol vessels that we are investing in, but we are also facing an enormous challenge because it takes time to deliver those important new platforms.  And so, we have to invest in supporting and maintaining our existing fleet of Halifax ships.  We're also investing in armoured combat support vehicles and the LC4ISR technology for the Army.  We have much more to do. 

These capabilities will allow us to project power further, farther and faster and for far longer.  They will make it even more costly for any aggressor to challenge our sovereignty in our north.  And put together, these capabilities will mean that Canada will be better able to protect our Arctic, to patrol our coastline and to strengthen our national security. 

Canada's defence spending is actually doubling from about $18 billion a year to over $40 billion a year between 2016 and 2026-27.  But in a world as dangerous as ours, with the new threat environment that we're facing, we know that we need to do much more.  And I want to assure everyone in this room we will do more.  From the emergence of drones to the increased importance of air defence, to the necessity of cutting edge radar to defend our continent, we know that much has changed over the past few years. 

To contend with the return of large-scale land warfare and to contribute to NATO, Canada needs more artillery ammunition, the industrial capacity to produce it and long-range precision strike capabilities.  There is an urgent need in Canada, and all NATO countries, to increase our production capability. Not just in artillery shells, but in all military production, because production is deterrent and a stronger defence industrial base is going to make us stronger and less susceptible to coercion.  And General, I hear very clearly the dismissal of some as lobbyists and business interests.  I disagree completely. 

And with our new Defence Policy Update, I see it not only as military policy and foreign policy, but it's industrial policy as well because quite clearly, our industrial partners need the clarity and the certainty that the update will provide.  They need to know where Canada's going.  They need to know what industries and products they'll have to produce in order to support our defence mission in Canada.  And we need to provide them with that certainty. 

To deal with the new challenges to our Arctic security, we are going to need persistent underwater surveillance capabilities and a robust network of Arctic infrastructure that's going to allow us to project power in our region and to maintain a meaningful presence here.  I've spoken to people in the North and when we talk about Arctic sovereignty, they say it isn't the episodic flyover of a plane or even a ship passing by off the coast. They say we need a persistent presence, that we have to invest in infrastructure, invest in our security.  If we do not defend our sovereignty in the far North, then it is no longer our sovereignty.  And so then it's our obligation.  It is our commitment.  And I want to acknowledge to you all we know we must do more and we will be doing more. 

To manage the frequency and scale of natural disasters, I have been the Minister responsible for calling upon General Eyre on many occasions and asking for the military to come to the aid of Canadians in the face of an emergency.  I know that has an enormous impact on our personnel, on their training and on their readiness and preparedness, and yet we know that when Canadians need them, the Canadian Armed Forces always answer their call. 

We're going to need modern tactical aviation capabilities for our Air Force and we're making those investments.  It'll take time to deliver those capabilities, but when they're delivered, our Air Force will be and will remain among the best in the world. 

Now it says in my notes that soon we will be releasing Canada's Defence Policy Update.  None of you want to hear me say soon. I don't want to tell you soon.  What I can tell you is that we've been working very hard.  General Eyre and his command staff team and I have been making our case for what the Canadian Armed Forces needs, what Canada needs in order to fulfill our obligations to our alliance partners and most importantly to defend our own country.  We will soon be releasing that Defence Policy Update.  I don't have a date for you, but I understand its urgency.  I feel its urgency.  We all feel its urgency.  We need that clarity, we need that certainty and so do our industry partners, so do Canadians, so do our allies. 

Last year, we launched some consultations to seek feedback, and I have met with many of you to hear your input and your suggestions.  We know what needs to be done.  We've heard you loud and clear.  We know that our updated defence policy must provide Canadian defence industry with a certainty and clarity that it requires to meet the needs of our armed forces, because building up a more robust domestic defence industry base with a capability to scale is going to help keep Canadians safe.  Resilience makes us a harder target.  It makes us less susceptible to coercion, and as we provide industry with that certainty, it means it will also be there to help, will also be there to help our industry partners because we're in this together.  So we'll be bolstering their cyber security, helping them stay resilient and will harness emerging technologies together.  And speaking of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence will transform how we defined Canada and Canadians.  It's already driving new opportunities, new capabilities and new risks, and we can't afford to fall behind. 

And so today, we're launching our new National Defence Canadian Armed Forces AI Strategy. This strategy is intended to guide how we use artificial intelligence across defence so that we can become more AI enabled by 2030.  It's going to help us use data and resources more efficiently, and it's going to enable National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces to work more closely with Canada's thriving innovation ecosystem and to ensure that we use AI in a responsible, ethical and safe way.  And as AI continues to develop at a rapid pace, it's imperative that we remain fully capable and interoperable with our industry partners, our allies and our defence partners from around the world.  And that's what this strategy is intended to enable. 

I'd like to turn to something that for me is perhaps the most urgent requirement of the Canadian Armed Forces.  It's people.  We're investing in modernizing our armed forces.  We're there to work with our industry partners for the certainty required to support our troops and our number one priority must always be the people, men and women, who serve in uniform.  None of this work is possible without them.  That's why we must invest in new housing for our troops.  We gave them a pay raise. We're taking meaningful steps to build a more diverse and inclusive and supportive institution that can attract and retain the talent from all segments of Canadian society. 

Because the bottom line is the Canadian Armed Forces must grow.  We're short a lot of people, almost 16,000 people at last count in both our Regular Forces and Reserves.  Now, in my conversations with the Canadian Armed Forces, they told me about all the efforts that they're making and they've urged us to be patient. But we can't be patient.  There is a sense of urgency.  We must change the way in which we recruit and retain the people of our forces.  And therefore, I've asked our military leaders to take a hard look at expanding eligibility for recruitment, to abolish outdated medical requirements where they are not meaningful and relevant.  Creating a probationary period to enroll new members, especially permanent residents and to streamline the security clearance's process. 

We had a remarkable situation where we announced last year that we were going to allow permanent residents to Canada to apply for the Canadian Armed Forces.  Almost 16,000 people applied.  A year later, less than 100 of them have been enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces.  Quite frankly, that's unacceptable.  It's an opportunity lost and we can't afford to lose those opportunities.  And so we are going to have to do the work necessary to change.  We need to maintain our high standards and it is not my intention in any way to compromise the remarkable standards of the Canadian Armed Forces that has led to the excellence that we have come to expect. 

But we also know that far too many people want to join the Forces and are being turned away or they're spending years in the enrollment process.  And if you're not the first to call with a job, they'll go somewhere else.  And so we must find a way to be first.  We must do better.  We must be more flexible and we have to be more creative.  But I have every confidence because in my exposure to leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces, I have seen a capacity for innovation, for, for flexibility to get the job done.  As Churchill once said, sometimes it’s not good enough to do your best, you have to do what's required.  And I have every confidence that the Canadian Armed Forces will do what's required. 

We've made some significant strides in Canada to give the military what they need.  We have, over a 10-year period, nearly doubled the DND budget.  We're rapidly procuring some key capabilities that our troops require and we are starting to invest in proven platforms that will boost our interoperability with our allies.  But as I've said probably too many times in this speech, I suffer no illusions.  We've got a lot of work ahead of us.  We're going to have to invest in new capabilities for our military.  We're going to have to provide our industry partners with a certainty that they need to meet our requirements.  We're going to have to take a fresh look at recruitment and retention and implement new innovative measures that will actually fill the gap.  We must also invest and maintain the equipment that we've got.  None of us were happy to see information that more than half of our trucks, more than half of our planes and more than half of our ships are not available for service because they are in need of parts and repair. 

And so we're going to have to do better.  We're going to have to keep those planes in the air, those ships on land and most importantly, we're going to have to equip our Army to make sure that they can do the job that we call upon them to do almost every day in order to make sure that they can continue that work while we invest in new equipment for the future.  We've got to be there for our people in uniform.  They've raised their hands to serve Canada.  They are among the very best in our country, and we've got to be there for them. 

We face a pivotal moment in our history.  The global security environment is changing quickly and new threats are emerging.  And as we stare down a future that is fraught with risk and uncertainty, Canada must do whatever it takes to defend our country and to defend the rules that have kept our country and others around the world safe.  We have no choice but to fulfill this mission and we will.  Together with our allies, our partners, our defence industry and all of you, I'm confident that we can strengthen our collective defence, we can uphold our democracy, we can protect our way of life from those who seek to challenge it.  Canadians expect this of us.  It is our collective responsibility and we must not fail them. 

Thank you all very much.

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