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

Paul Wells on Canada’s new chief of defence staff

by Paul Wells

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


  1. It would be less surprising if he were a fan of the best U.S. fighter imaginable

    I’m not sure that “best U.S. fighter imaginable” describes the F-35. In fact, I’m quite sure that it doesn’t. I don’t even think the F-35 meets this criteria if we add the caveat “best U.S. fighter imaginable that they’re willing to export”.

    ETA: That said, I might give you “Best U.S. fighter imaginable, if you’re willing to spend without limits on a plane that’s only about a third of it’s way through it’s developmental testing”. At least it’s flying now. After all, the Tories had made some pretty strong rhetorical commitments to the thing before the first prototype had even come off the assembly line.

  2. Great choice (from a RCAF veteran)
    Interesting to see blogger comments from folks who may not have travelled on a roller coaster, now they are fighter plane experts.
    Bloody hilarious to hear the NDP and others criticise the performance, dynamics and airframe of this plane.
    They could not tell it from a Tiger Moth.

    • First, thanks for your service.

      Second, I don’t personally see myself as any sort of fighter expert, but COME ON. The military and the Tory government were treating this thing like the best thing since sliced bread before a single F-35 capable of flight had even been BUILT yet. Plenty of experts have said that in an effort to have a committee design a plane that can do everything for a reasonable price what they’ve come up with is a plane that can’t do anything particularly well, at what now seems like it will be an extraordinary price.

      You’ll excuse the skepticism from those of us who’ve been hearing about how great the F35 is since before one was built, and about what a great deal it’s going to be despite that fact that even Lockhead Martin has no idea yet how much they’re actually going to sell the things for.

      • There’s also the larger question of whether this govt has been asleep at the switch – allowing the procurement system to become a matter of whatever shiny toys the boys want? Perhaps not entirely fair to the military but this is a well known problem in the US where rational congressional oversight often gets sidetracked.
        Surely part of the govt’s job is to keep a rational eye on this sort of stuff? The Tories seem to have ditched some of that role in their national rebranding exercises.

        • The history of Canadian military procurement is rife with scandals and problems. Nothing new here.

        • Harper taking orders from the USA is not indicative of strong Canadian sovereignty. Its obvious the Cons are on the hook to buy those F35s and dont have te backbone to say no even when these jets are already supersed and stupensously overpriced.

          • Are they on the hook, though? My impression of the current kerfuffle is that they don’t have to buy the planes but for two years have been acting like they do, and have been calling everyone who pointed out differently the Taliban.

          • Or maybe just maybe its a better plane even in concept for 40 yrs worth of planning then anything else out there that is all based on 70′s tech.
            If I was buying a home alarm system I’d want the latest version. Not the “upgraded” version of whatever was avail in 75.

      • Canada bought into the F35 when Jean was still PM. Because of that a lot of work has come to Canadian companies from Lockheed Martin for the F35 project.
        Lockheed Martin recently delivered several planes for testing and training to the US and British forces and stated that the planes Canada will receive will be built near the end of 2014 when the price will match what our Gov will pay.
        But Lockheed Martin stated that should Canada decide not to take delivery of the F35 then all contracts with Canadian companies will be sourced elsewhere.
        Kinda douche but that was the deal. Put some skin in the game to help fund the next evolution of fighter aircraft with expectation that IF it works out orders will be placed. In return a lot of work is sent to our companies that do whatever it is Lockheed needs done.
        Lockheed Martin has spent way more in Canada then the gov has invested with many millions more to come once the assembly line is in full swing.
        Lastly… It’s typically Canadian to bitch and moan about how much something costs even if it is “state of the art”… especially if it is different. But it is even more typical to piss and moan after the fact.
        I can just imagine what people would say if Canada did pull out of the F35 program and bought the Good old F18 Super Hornet (designed in the 70′s BTW) and then the F35 was the BEST plane ever, “Figures! Canadian Gov to cheap to buy the good stuff!” “As if they pulled out and Canadian industry lost all that money AND its a kick ass plane AND we are stuck with the F18 for another 30 years!”

        • “the price will match what our Gov will pay”

          Well, I have no doubt of that, at least. I have no doubt we will neither over or underpay the amount due.

          “Lockheed Martin has spent way more in Canada then the gov has invested”

          Well, we haven’t bought the planes yet, so we’ve spent zero so far…

          • I’m not sure why but my reply went above under Lord Kitchen… If you care to read it anyway…

          • fair enough. little bit disappointed to see we were shovelling cashola out the door so fast on this one.

        • Slick lobbying there, Observe and Report.

      • Actually GFMD (and Google is a really good for times like this), Jean Chretien’s Gov bought into the project in the 90′s for…. (google search!)…Ok this one is taking to long LOL! But Canada became a partner and signed the JSF MOU in 1997 and if memory (yikes) serves me correctly it was initially MAYBE a couple of million bucks. Just about enough to get our flag on the tail of the first two operational test planes.
        But I found this on the Auditor Generals site. They has his audit up for public look see;
        “As of September 2011, the government had disbursed about CAN$335 million toward participation in the JSF Program and related support to Canadian industry.”
        Oh wait!! Found it;
        “National Defence signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the first phase of the JSF Program, concept demonstration, in December 1997. Its US$10.6 million (budget-year dollars) contribution was made within the expenditure authority of the Minister of National Defence and did not require approval by the Treasury Board.”

  3. I wonder if that Gate’s address is the closest thing we”re ever going to get to an official stake through the heart of the lunatic Bush/ Rumsfeld doctrines? Whatever happens in Iran, surely we are done with regime changes that require boots on the ground?

  4. I think you mean Deputy Commander of NORAD – not NATO – paragraph 3.

  5. 1950s Canada again….my gawd, people even look the same.

    • But now we have the internet to gossip with instead of tea parties and the pub

      • We never had tea parties and pubs. Wrong country

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