by Philippe Lagassé
First published on the Canadian International Council website.
A new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) was appointed by the Governor-in-Council last week. Following a few months of speculation about who would be named, Cabinet decided on Lieutenant-General Thomas Lawson, who had been serving as the deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command. After a brief press conference in Parliament (which, as one learned protocol expert remarked, sent the wrong idea about the who the CDS serves, constitutionally speaking), observers started analysing what to make of the government’s choice.
Writing on this site, Steve Saideman noted that Lawson’s selection highlighted the Conservative government’s determination to “stick with the F-35 program through thick and thin.” The Official Opposition came to a similar conclusion, as did members of the parliamentary press gallery. Given his past championing of the F-35 and still obvious support of the aircraft, this conclusion seems self-evident.
But there are good reasons to believe that General Lawson’s support of the F-35 was a secondary consideration at best. Since the tabling of the Auditor General’s report this past spring, the government has been adamant that a replacement for the CF-18s has not yet been chosen. Indeed, Conservative MPs and government officials have gone out of their way to stress this point recently. Of note, they have consistently repeated that the newly established National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) will fulfil its mandate before a new fighter aircraft is selected.
It is easy to scoff at these talking points and assume that the NFPS is all part of an elaborate ruse. The government’s not-so-gentle massaging of the truth about the F-35 from the summer of 2010 to early 2012 certainly lends credibility to this feeling. However, it could be that the Conservatives have maybe – just maybe – decided to be more cautious. There is a possibility, however implausible to jaded observers, that the government is actually looking at different options.
Now, this does not mean that General Lawson would not be an excellent spokesperson for the F-35 if it is chosen to replace the CF-18s, which is still the likeliest outcome. But it further suggests that the Conservatives were not trying to send a signal about this aircraft in appointing him. Considering how strongly the government has insisted that ‘all options are on the table’ lately, and how politically sensitive the issue still is, it would be rather ham-fisted to use his appointment to show support for the F-35. It would plainly contradict the Conservative’s quite categorical talking points and expose them to additional charges of chicanery.
General Lawson’s support for the F-35 may, therefore, have been incidental to his appointment, not a factor that drove it. Evidence of this was seen at the Parliament press conference. When asked about the F-35, the new CDS offered a careful, measured response. While not recanting his enthusiasm for the F-35, he echoed the government’s line that no choice had yet been made.
More importantly, he was clear that his job was to offer the best military advice to the government, while letting Cabinet decide how a replacement for the CF-18s will be chosen and on what basis. This was a good answer. It showed that he respects the proper relationship between Cabinet and the armed forces, and the military’s subservience to the civilian authority, even when controversial procurements are at stake. What it did not demonstrate was an intent to use his first press conference as CDS to sell the F-35.
General Lawson’s comments about the proper role of the CDS in Canada’s civil-military relationship lends credence to David Bercuson’s interpretation of what his appointment might mean. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Professor Bercuson linked his appointment to the fate of Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie’s 2011 Report on Transformation. Professor Bercuson’s noted that the prime minister is rumoured to be supportive of the Report’s more controversial recommendations, whereas the leadership of the Canadian Forces (CF) is generally opposed to them. According to Professor Bercuson, in appointing General Lawson, an officer whose view on the Report are difficult to ascertain, the prime minister may be trying to reassure the CF leadership, without necessarily promising that some of Leslie’s recommendations won’t be imposed on the military from above.
This view fits well with General Lawson’s comments about a CDS’s role. The new CDS may or may not have strong views about the Leslie Report. Either way, he will surely tell the government what he thinks about its findings and whether they should be implemented. But he appears to be a CDS who will help the defence minister reform National Defence Headquarters if the prime minister chooses to embrace the Leslie Report.
If this assessment is correct, it implies that Professor Bercuson is correct about the underlying logic behind General Lawson’s appointment. Put bluntly, the Conservatives did not want another Rick Hillier, a CDS who wouldn’t shy away from resisting directives he did not like and who was wiling to bring his disagreements with ministers and civilians into the public arena if he thought it would help his cause. Although the Conservatives are now fully aware that the military have their own interests and will seek to get their own way, they were likely looking for a CDS who would fight the CF’s battles internally and who appreciates the limits of his office’s authority.
Of course, the prime minister and minister of national defence have no way of knowing if General Lawson will turn out to be this kind of CDS. Past behaviour and judgements of character are not perfect indicators of an individual’s future actions. But there is a strong likelihood that the government was seeking an officer who appreciates that the prime minister and defence minister get the final say, even when they make choices that are unpopular within the CF.
With difficult procurement files and budget cuts on the horizon, General Lawson was a prudent bet.