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Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance arrives for a technical briefing, Monday January 19, 2015 in Ottawa. Sources say Lt.-Gen. Vance, who twice led the army’s task force in Kandahar during the Afghan war, is the likely successor to Gen. Tom Lawson, the current chief of the defence staff.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A former combat commander who has led operations at home and overseas has been appointed to the country's top military job.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney say Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, 51, will be the next chief of defence staff, replacing the soon-to-retire Gen. Tom Lawson.

Vance takes over at an important time, with Canada helping to fight extremists in Iraq and Syria and as measures are being taken to reassure eastern European allies in the face of Russian aggression, Harper said Monday.

"I'm sure Gen. Vance will do a tremendous job for this vital national institution," said the prime minister, noting that the transition would not take place for a couple of months.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he's concerned about the amount of time that will pass before there is a change of command.

There's been an open invitation for Lawson to appear before the Commons defence committee, and Harris said he'd like to hear from Vance about his vision for the future of the military and expectations for the mission in Iraq and Syria before Parliament breaks in advance of the fall election.

"I think it would be good for the public to know what Gen. Vance's views are and whether he has any particular concerns," said Harris.

Vance twice led the army's task force in Kandahar during the Afghan war.

Lawson, a former fighter pilot, announced earlier this year that he would step down after two-and-a-half years in the job.

Vance currently serves as the country's joint operations commander and has been the face of high-profile public briefings on the combat mission against the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Aside from twice being task force commander in Kandahar — in 2009 and again in 2010 — Vance has also served in other key posts, including head of the strategic joint staff, the military's nerve centre in Ottawa.

He also served as deputy commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in Naples.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie called Vance blunt and known for speaking truth to power, which could make him a popular choice for a military struggling to redefine itself following the Afghanistan mission.

Vance also takes over at a time when the military is juggling multiple deployments on a reduced budget, something that's likely to weigh on the new defence chief, he added.

"It won't be a lot of fun," said MacKenzie. "I've always said you have to be a bit of a masochist to take that job these days. There's no doubt about it. Naturally, there is the other side of it where you have achieved the ultimate (career) appointment, but it's not going to be the most enjoyable one."

Aside from field experience, Vance brings a robust academic record to the job with a master's degree in war studies, and he was one of the principal authors of the army's counter-insurgency manual, which was adopted during the Kandahar campaign.