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Lieutenant-General Walter Natynczyk will succeed charismatic and outspoken General Rick Hillier as the head of the Canadian Forces, the Harper government has announced.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay called Lt.-Gen. Natynczyk a "gentleman general" as he introduced him to reporters. He said the official change of command is to come in the next few weeks.

Gen. Natynczyk said he was honoured to have been appointed.

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"I'm looking forward to providing the leadership for the men and women of the Canadian Forces," he said.

He said one of his first priorities will be to visit the troops in Afghanistan.

"I've got to get back over there pretty soon. I was just there in February."

The Prime Minister's Office has been searching for a successor to Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier since the outspoken and charismatic commander announced in mid April that he'll step down this July.

Appointed in 2005 by former prime minister Paul Martin, Gen. Hillier quickly became the most high-profile Canadian military leader in more than a quarter century - sometimes to the dismay of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, which didn't always appreciate his blunt assessments of defence policy.

The leading contenders for the job of succeeding Gen. Hillier as head of the Canadian Forces have widely believed to be Gen. Natynczyk, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, Chief of the Land Staff, and Lieutenant-General Angus Watt, Chief of the Air Staff.

Gen. Natynczyk, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, has fostered high-level connections with his American counterparts, having served alongside U.S. troops in Iraq in 2004. He has a keen understanding of military operations, given he oversaw the recent "transformation" of the Forces into a more modern and better equipped operation.

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Gen. Natynczyk said Friday that this posting taught him lessons applicable to Afghanistan.

"The tactics and techniques and procedures are exactly the same and the risks are identical."

Lt.-Gen. Watt, Chief of the Air Staff, is a former helicopter pilot who has worked in Brussels and at NORAD headquarters in Colorado. Given the main focus of the armed forces is Afghanistan, he benefits from his service as the deputy commander (Air) of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2006.

Lt.-Gen. Leslie, Chief of the Land Staff, is a blunt-talking officer from a well-known military family. If the government wants to keep a media-savvy officer at the head of the Canadian Forces, the 50-year-old fluently bilingual officer is a good choice. He has been to Afghanistan, where he acted as Commander of the Task Force in Kabul.

Gen. Hillier's successor will likely not cut as large a profile in Canadian life as Gen. Hillier, who intervened in public debates on military policy and lobbied Parliament openly to extend Canada's participation in the Afghanistan war. Gen. Hillier, who clashed with former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, was ultimately ordered by the Harper government to tone down his interventions on defence policy.

But it remains to be seen whether Gen. Hillier's successor will have as much influence on the Forces as he did.

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The Newfoundland-born soldier was the communicator-in-chief behind a transformation of the Forces from a Cold War relic into a modern military capable of sending expeditions overseas to fight small wars.

He was also the chief architect of Canada's war in Afghanistan and successfully urged MPs earlier this year to extend the mission to 2011.

Gen. Hillier used the Afghan mission as a springboard to upgrade the Forces' equipment, from aircraft to vehicles, which had suffered from decades of budget cuts. It was a resupply that both the Liberal government and later the Harper administration supported.

Equally important, he helped rebuild public support for the military - tainted and tattered after the 1993 Somalia affair - using his public-relations skills to build a bond with Canadians that had eroded long ago.

With a report from Canadian Press

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