What Canada's new top soldier brings to the modern military

Paul Wells on Canada's new chief of defence staff

Like almost everyone else in the Press Gallery, I was all ready to say wise things if retired general Andrew Leslie managed to get himself named chief of the defence staff, and had to do some quick scrambling when it turned out to be someone else. Here’s what I’ve noticed and learned about Tom Lawson.

First, as John Geddes notes, he’s a big fan of the F-35. The only surprise here is that Lawson has been so blunt about saying so. It would be less surprising if he were a fan of the best U.S. fighter imaginable but more discreet about it, and much more surprising if he thought the Canadian Forces should be trying to get some other plane.

What jumps out at me, reading Lawson’s NORAD biography, is how much of his career has been spent in and with the U.S. Air Force. USAF Staff College, Auburn University, USAF Air War College, deputy commander of NATO. This too is not a shocker, given the extent to which U.S. and Canadian militaries operate shoulder to shoulder, and if I were a fighter pilot I’d want to learn a lot from the air force that dominated the skies of the world without serious challenge for most of the past quarter century. But it’s also familiar: Lawson’s predecessor as CDS, Walt Natynczyk, was one of the top commanders in Iraq as a CF general on loan to the U.S. Army during the bloodiest days there in 2003. This suggests somebody at DND or the PMO is mightily impressed by Canadian officers who’ve spent serious time working with the U.S. 

Lawson also stands out for having worked on the defence transformation Rick Hillier initiated as CDS in 2005. That’s not the most recent transformation report the Forces have seen, though: Andrew Leslie wrote one in his last months as a soldier. I wrote about the Leslie report here. It proposed a radical decentralization of capability, staffing and budgets away from National Defence HQ and toward the soldier on the ground. From my article:

In the six years from 2004 to 2010, spending on the Canadian Forces’ command and support “tail” has grown four times as fast as spending on the deployable fighting “tooth.” So during a period of strong public support for Canada’s military, while the army was fighting a deadly and challenging war in Kandahar, headquarters staff grew four times as fast as the fighting force did.

Those six years include the time between Hillier’s transformation and Leslie’s report. Hillier hated Leslie’s report: “You try to implement that report as it is and you destroy the Canadian military,” he said. “You simply can’t take that many people out of command and control functions.” I’m told that opinion was widely shared among the people at NDHQ whose careers depended heavily on ever-increasing HQ staff.

Lawson wasn’t asked directly about the difference between Hillier’s and Leslie’s visions today, but he worked more closely with Hillier than with Leslie. So one big question is whether he shares his old boss’s conviction that the modern Canadian military could not survive a purge of the cubicles at NDHQ.

The last thing about Lawson is that he’s a pilot. Now, it’s not axiomatic that this means ground troops will be used less in the CF during the next half-decade. Every officer uses available tools. Under foot soldier Natynczyk, the air force in Libya and, especially, navy in the Arctic and elsewhere have been getting more of a workout while the army gets less, as Canada scales down its Afghanistan involvement. But personal experience matters, and Lawson is more familiar with air sovereignty patrols, air strikes and air surveillance than with sustained ground action. He’s the kind of guy you get if you do not anticipate a lot of sustained ground action. Which makes sense: the last U.S. Defense Secretary before the current one left office saying his successors should have their “head examined” if they suggest a war like Afghanistan or Iraq.

And the last Canadian prime minister to send a large contingent of foot soldiers into an extended engagement was Jean Chrétien, 11 years ago.

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