He's the first officer from the class of Kandahar to rise to lead Canada's armed forces. And he'll take the helm at a time when another mission, against Islamic State, is the government's first military priority.
Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, a commander with experience in combat and in front of TV cameras, has officially been named the next chief of defence staff.
It was clear, though the new top general was presented in a brief photo op in the Prime Minister's Office, why Stephen Harper has picked him: the PM highlighted the missions against Islamic State, and to reassure allies in Eastern Europe, as central to an "important time" for the Canadian Forces.
There's little doubt Mr. Harper is leaning on Lt.-Gen. Vance's operational experience as a combat commander, including two tours commanding troops in Kandahar, and in serving as the military's public face for missions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. Lt.-Gen. Vance has less experience with the institutional challenges the Forces face: coping with strained budgets and delayed purchases of major equipment. He's known for charisma and a dynamic personality, for a sharp mind and for blunt talk. As head of the Forces' Strategic Joint Staff, where he briefed Parliament and the public on the Libya mission in 2011, and then as commander of Joint Operations, where he oversaw the Islamic State mission, he's had a more public profile and more close contact with the PM than other senior generals have had.
With the promotion of Lt.-Gen. Vance, 51, comes generational change, to those who served in the defining Canadian mission in recent decades, in Kandahar.
"This is truly the first senior commander who has been produced in the crucible of Afghanistan," said Dr. Howard Coombs, professor of history and war studies at the Royal Military College in Kingston. "For people to excel in that environment, they had to be agile intellectually."
Lt.-Gen. Vance's late father, Lt.-Gen. Jack Vance, retired from the Forces in 1988 a vice-chief of the Defence Staff. But the younger Vance signed up as an enlisted man as a teenager, then did officer training and eventually a master's degree – while serving.
He first came to prominence in 2009 as the Kandahar commander who adopted the first Canadian counterinsurgency plan on the ground, adopting a hold-build strategy to win the hearts and minds of locals, rather than merely clearing out Taliban in firefights. He set up a model village in Dand district, Deh-e-Bagh, where Canadians set up a permanent security presence and started development projects to improve the lives of residents.
It also led to a high-profile occasion after a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Canadian vehicle there, when then brigadier-general Vance berated local residents for letting the attack happen. "If we keep blowing up on the roads, I am going to stop doing development," he told a village shura.
But Dr. Coombs argues the counterinsurgency strategy itself was a success, making Dand and some other parts of Kandahar safer, and a pattern picked up as more U.S. troops surged in.
Canadian troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2011, but not before Lt.-Gen. Vance returned to Kandahar to command a second time, in 2010, after brigadier-general Daniel Ménard was removed for a relationship with a subordinate – this time to revitalize a demoralized Canadian contingent.
That can-do operational experience, along with the charisma to serve as the military's public face, is clearly an asset for Mr. Harper now, when the most politically critical military challenge is the Islamic State mission. For a while, after the tenure of outspoken chief Rick Hillier, the government made a point of picking more low-key officers for the top post, with outgoing General Tom Lawson a relatively reserved figure on the national stage.
Now, it appears the government is again more comfortable with a charismatic top general. "He's got more of a profile and a presence," said David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.