In appointing Air Force Lieutenant-General Thomas J. Lawson as Canada's new Chief of the Defence Staff, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay no doubt selected a man whose military career, character and temperament were deemed suitable for the job.
But the selection also carries messages of its own.
The four men generally known to have been considered for the position were vice-admirals Bruce Donaldson and Paul Maddison of the Royal Canadian Navy and retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie.
Vice-Adm. Maddison is currently Chief of the Maritime Staff (Navy) and Vice-Adm. Donaldson is Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, effectively chief operating officer of the Canadian Forces. Gen. Leslie is the former chief of the land staff (army) and author of a comprehensive and controversial report commissioned by Mr. MacKay. That report offered very specific advice on how Canada's military could be reorganized to remain ready and effective while reducing unreasonably high overhead costs. Gen. Leslie completed his report a little over a year ago and subsequently retired.
The fate of the Leslie report was surely a major consideration in Gen. Lawson's selection. His own views on it are largely unknown. Although the report made proposals for significant change in all areas of the Canadian Forces, the most wide-ranging recommendations would clearly affect the army more than the other two branches.
A few proposals have been acted on by the government, but much of the report remains in limbo. Although the Prime Minister is reportedly very much in favour, much of the military's high command is dead set against it. That includes former defence chief Rick Hillier, who has publicly denounced the report.
Gen. Leslie's selection as chief from retirement would have been unusual, to say the least, but it would have sent a strong signal to the military that his recommendations would largely be implemented. But Gen. Leslie, like Mr. Hillier, is a highly charismatic figure who may well have sought assurances about reform and military budgets that Mr. Harper and Mr. MacKay were not prepared to give. Besides, it is well known that Mr. Hillier's charismatic leadership – most unusual in a peacetime defence chief – made the government uncomfortable on more than one occasion. Why risk that again?
By selecting Gen. Lawson, the government's intentions for the Leslie report remain opaque, a good position from which to keep the high command happy.
Most observers thought the navy's turn had come to supply the new defence chief. The navy is undoubtedly in the worst shape of the three services. Its major ships are close to obsolescence or past it, and little has been done to renew the fleet. The used-submarine venture originally embarked upon by Jean Chrétien's Liberals has proven a disaster. But perhaps the navy's problems were the very reason why neither of the vice-admirals were chosen – fear that such a choice would place the government on record about the need to fast-track naval revamping at the expense of the other services. The government isn't interested in fast-tracking any defence spending these days.
None of this is to say that Gen. Lawson isn't well qualified for the position in his own right. He has worked closely with the U.S. military in a number of postings, most notably his last one as deputy commander of NORAD. He is well educated, representing the post-Somalia officer corps, and he has extensive staff experience. He hasn't had a great deal of operational command time, which is unusual in a military that is just coming out of a 10-year war.
Gen. Lawson will face many significant challenges. Virtually every major procurement project is in deep trouble, including his much-loved F-35 fighter. Defence has endured a 10-per-cent budget cut in the past two years, and more could be on the way. The war in Afghanistan is effectively over for Canada and much of the public is turning away from things military. Perhaps the biggest problem he will face is that peacetime militaries tend to become bloated bureaucracies and easily lose their edge.
At the end of the day, Gen. Lawson's biggest challenge will be to remind the public and the government that war always comes as a shocking surprise to democracies and that most of Canada's wars have seized the nation out of a clear blue sky.
David Bercuson is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.