Flying into the CF Future

Steve Saideman on what the choice of Lt.-Gen. Lawson as CDS tells us about the government's priorities.
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August 28, 2012
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The Canadian media is chock-full of speculation about what the choice of Lieutenant-General Thomas Lawson as the next chief of defence staff (CDS) means. Much attention has deservedly focused on Lawson’s support of the expensive and controversial F-35 program. In a somewhat surprising deviation from his normal approach, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has chosen to highlight, rather than hide, this contested program. If this choice signals one thing, it is probably that the government plans to stick with the F-35 program through thick and thin.

But there is more to the choice of Lawson, to the position of CDS, and to Canadian defence than just the F-35. What do we know about Lawson?

Lawson is a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, ending the run of Army officers serving as CDS. While Canada unified the services long ago, branch identity still matters, and the choice of Lawson would have been somewhat upsetting to the non-Army branches. Having said that, it has been a very long time since a Naval officer served as CDS, since Rick Hillier’s predecessor was Ray Henault, an Air Force officer. This underlines the F-35 factor just a bit more.

We also know that Lawson spent significant time working with, and in, the United States, particularly at United States Air Force educational institutions. I would have preferred that he spent more time at the U.S. National War College, as I have my own doubts about the USAF, but it makes sense for Canadian leaders to spend time interacting with those who will likely be their partners in any multilateral operation. Afghanistan taught Canadian officers quite clearly that the Americans show up with the needed assets when help is required, and that few other allies lack the capabilities or the discretion to respond as quickly or as effectively in a battle. The relationships that Lawson has developed over the course of his career will pay off during his time as CDS, as he will be interacting with officers with whom he went to school. 

Likewise, Lawson’s time as deputy commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) is quite valuable. He commanded Americans in this role. This job also focused on the defence of Canada, something in which Army officers have much less experience. 

Strikingly, if his bio is correct, Lawson has no experience commanding those in combat. His predecessors ran major operations in Afghanistan (Hillier) and Iraq (Natynczyk). Lawson did not participate in the air campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, nor was he in the chain of command for the air operations over Libya last year. This is perhaps a return to normalcy for the Canadian Forces, and combat experience is not a requirement for this position as much as managerial experience is. Still, given the depth and breadth of combat experience across the Canadian Forces, including Royal Canadian Air Force officers who served in the Libyan campaign and important multinational billets in Afghanistan, it is interesting that the government chose an officer without much combat experience. This says less about Lawson’s qualifications and more about the government’s priorities.

Aside from one early tour in Germany, Lawson does not have much expeditionary experience at all. This suggests that the government of the day is not interested in any more costly foreign adventures. It is also consistent with a Canada First Defence Strategy in a time of budget cuts – that spending on foreign deployment is costly and could crowd out dollars dedicated to improving defence at home.

Most promisingly, from my personal interest, Lawson served as commandant of the Royal Military College. I hope his experience there was a good one, because we academics could use a CDS that sees the value in research and education. With the end of the Security and Defence Forum program, there is a greater need for the Canadian Forces and the academic world to figure out how they can interact in ways that benefit both sides. 

From all accounts, Lawson is a sharp, articulate, and gifted individual. Because his new job is so important, we are tempted to speculate about what he will do in office. The various attributes and experiences I addressed above perhaps speak more to the government’s priorities than to Lawson’s abilities. By choosing Lawson for this position, the government has made it pretty clear that it wants to stay out of the NATO expeditionary business and focus on developing the systems that are seen as necessary to the defence of Canada. Leaving aside, for the moment, whether the F-35 is the right choice, it seems this decision is actually quite consistent with the government of the day. The challenge, of course, is that the world does not always respect the priorities of the government, so Canada may be called to participate in a multilateral operation somewhere where violence is taking place. Given Lawson’s experiences on the Strategic Joint Staff and at NORAD, he has the background to capably lead the Canadian Forces in such efforts.

Photo courtesy of Reuters