His deft command of an air force base caught the brass's eye. His role as public spokesman on the mission in Libya and for F-35 fighters made Tory politicians take notice. Now, Tom Lawson's new job is to quietly steer the Canadian Forces through rough times of restraint without causing too much fuss.
Named Monday as the next Chief of the Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Thomas J. Lawson will become Canada's top soldier at a time when the military needs new planes and ships but also is required to cut its budget. He is a former fighter pilot, and current deputy commander of NORAD, but it's his manager's skills – as an administrator and communicator – that won him the top job.
Lt.-Gen. Lawson will be given the full rank of general. His background will give the government a credible spokesman as it faces controversy over the order for the next fighter jets – as a member of the the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt.-Gen. flew both CF-104 Starfighters and CF-18 fighters and has been a booster of the F-35 to be Canada's next fighter craft.
In 2005, when Rick Hillier was chosen as top the soldier, he presented his vision of a mobile, hard-hitting future Canadian military over dinner with then-prime minister Paul Martin. Lt-Gen. Lawson, chosen after more traditional interviews, told reporters Monday he'll "maintain the course we're on."
"They're looking for somebody who can do better with what they have as opposed to somebody with a grand vision that will cost a lot of money," said University of Ottawa professor and defence analyst Philippe Lagassé.
He also appears to be someone who will not step on government toes in public. As deputy chief of the air staff in 2010, he was a public booster of plans to buy the F-35, and no one thinks he has changed his mind. He sidestepped questions about F-35s Monday, insisting he will offer advice and the government will decide.
"I suspect he's somebody who knows how to play ball, and is not going to cause too many difficulties for the government, at least publicly," Mr. Lagassé said.
Lt.-Gen Lawson and Defence Minister Peter MacKay both played down plans to revamp the government's defence strategy to fit current budgets, suggesting that neither wants to detail those tricky issues in public.
Well-liked, calm, and well-spoken, Lt-Gen. Lawson beat out for the top job Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the current vice-chief of the defence staff, and Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, the current commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Lt-Gen Lawson, who only joined the ranks of three-star generals last year when he was posted to NORAD, had a rapid rise through the general-officer ranks to the top – from colonel to Canada's top soldier in five years. But he is a veteran of 37 years of service, roughly the same class as other contenders.
He not only had experience with fighters and transport planes, but as an academic – teaching electrical engineering at the Royal Military College. But it was his performance in key posts as a colonel that marked him as a high-flyer.
In 2005, then-colonel Lawson took a job on the transformation team set up by new chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier, steering changes through opposition from more senior officers. His next post, as the wing commander in charge of CFB Trenton, the country's biggest air-force base, showed his mettle.
"You're managing a couple of thousand people, budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, community relations, politics at the local level, equipment, maintenance, everything," said retired lieutenant-general Angus Watt, the former chief of the air staff. "If you can keep your hand on all of that stuff, usually it proves that you're destined for bigger and better things."
That post, and his subsequent tour as Commandant of the Royal Military College – where he was sent to revive its military tradition – made the top brass notice.
But it was his communications skills that caught notice among politicians. As assistant chief of the air staff between 2009 and 2011, he was not only a public spokesman for the plan to buy F-35s, but also for the Canadian Forces mission in Libya, where he was noted for smooth handling of press briefings on the role of Canada's air and naval forces.