On October 29, General Tom Lawson will accept command of the Canadian Forces during a ceremony at the National War Museum in Ottawa. The museum is a fitting backdrop for the transfer of command from one Chief of the Defence Staff to another, tracing as it does the arc of Canada’s military history. For Lawson may have a significant hand in writing the next chapter.

In announcing Lawson’s appointment at a press conference in late August, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said that the new CDS will take on the role “at an important time in Canadian Forces history, a time of continued adjustment and defence transformation to the needs of our times and of our future.”

Lawson himself was more circumspect about his immediate priorities, crediting General Walt Natynczyk for the force he will inherit and adding only that his priority would be to “maintain the course we are on, which is to ensure our operations are carefully looked after and nurtured, that the forces of today are trained and have the equipment required, and that we look after our wounded soldiers, and … look after the forces of the future by providing our best advice to the government on … the options required for future operations, both home and abroad.”

He, of course, will be challenged to present a case for maintaining and introducing capabilities as budgets are further reduced. Squaring the level of ambition stated in a refreshed Canada First Defence Strategy with the actual dollars available will be a difficult task. At presentations to the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries this spring, the army, navy and air force all laid out lengthy lists of programs that will need to be addressed if the CF is to be the formidable, networked organization it envisions becoming.

The most important capability, of course, is people. If his predecessors faced recruitment challenges, Lawson could, perhaps, face retention issues with his battle-experienced young leaders and certain trades as budgets are adjusted. Leveraging technology will be crucial to keep them engaged.

Though these issues will loom large, early media focus has been on Lawson’s perceived support for the F-35. At his introductory press conference, the former F-18 fighter pilot carefully avoided commitment, saying only that the CF needed to ensure it had combat capable platforms and “the F-35 , in particular, is part of a whole-of-government effort and we will continue to take our lead on the F-35 from the government.”

So most have turned to his previous statements, in particular an article published this summer in the Canadian Military Journal in which he quoted former Chief of the Air Staff LGen Andre Deschamps that “only a 5th generation fighter could satisfy our needs in the increasingly complex future security environment.”

In describing one of the key characteristics of 5th generation, stealth, Lawson added “it must be noted that it is impossible to upgrade a 4th generation fighter into a 5th generation fighter.”

The article was titled Good to Great, borrowing from the title of a book by management expert Jim Collins in which he describes the characteristics of highly successful organizations, one of which is the ability to focus resources on areas of competency. Lawson, the former deputy commander of NORAD, approaches this idea from a NORAD perspective, having already recognized the organization’s ability to adapt to the new asymmetrical threat environment and incorporate the additional requirement of maritime domain awareness into its mandate. He writes that NORAD’s successful longevity is due to its “continuity of focus” and the ability of command to keep its “eye on the ball.” In doing so, he notes that “NORAD now more heavily leverages technology to carry out its mission.”

Helping to steer an organization through the introduction of new commands, new responsibilities and new partnerships may prove to be sound preparation for leading the Canadian Forces. NORAD has seen continuous evolution of its mission in defence of North America.

So, as a few have already suggested, Lawson’s appointment could signal intent to focus on the “home game” as the CF continues to move through its own transformation. And NORAD’s strategic interest in the Arctic would fit well with current government priorities. Lawson is likely well versed in both.