The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is entering into a new era with an almost entirely revamped senior management team. After nearly seven tumultuous years at the political helm, Defence Minister Peter MacKay swapped portfolios with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in the July cabinet shuffle.

A veteran politician with roots dating back to the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, Nicholson is far less of a showboat than the outgoing MacKay. Despite standing at the top of the Justice Department for the same duration, Nicholson rarely found himself in the public spotlight.

Although cabinet ministers may be the public face, or figurehead of their department, those familiar with how things work in the federal government know that the real power lies within the bureaucracy. Thus, an even more important, albeit far less heralded, changing of the guard took place on May 13, 2013, when Deputy Minister Robert Fonberg was replaced by Richard Fadden. While it is widely known that Fonberg is averse to both media scrutiny and outside oversight of his department, as the former head of CSIS, Fadden has brought DND an enhanced desire for even more secrecy.

For the uniformed senior leadership of the Canadian Forces, the very pomp and ceremony upon which the traditions of the institution are built denies them the luxury of operating below the radar. General Tom Lawson replaced retired Chief of the Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk just last December. In July, LGen Peter Devlin handed off command of the Canadian Army to LGen Marquis Hainse, and VAdm Mark Norman took control of the Royal Canadian Navy from retiring VAdm Paul Maddison.

Royal Canadian Air Force commander LGen Yvan Blondin is just one year into his tenure. The one pillar of continuity is LGen Stuart Beare. Having been the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) since 2011, Beare was well-positioned to oversee the massive organizational transformation which rolled Canada Command, Canadian Joint Support Command and CEFCOM all into the single entity known as Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC).

Without a doubt, it will be the operational element of the CAF that will soon pose the greatest challenge to senior leadership. After more than a decade-long commitment to the war in Afghanistan, come March 2014, when the final rotation of trainers withdraws from Kabul, the CAF will essentially be without a mission. Other than a handful of troops deployed to Haiti and another couple of dozen in far-flung UN peacekeeping missions, our entire military will be back in Canada.

While this may seem like a godsend to our war-weary troops and their emotionally-drained families in the short term, it will also be detrimental in that it will reduce the sense of purpose which the war in Afghanistan generated. Troops training to deploy into an actual combat zone are far more motivated to hone their skills than those who conduct peacetime manoeuvres against a fictitious enemy force of “Fantasians” at minus fifty degrees.

While there have been numerous military boondoggles and embarrassing acquisition scandals – the ongoing procurement saga of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the still not delivered Cyclone helicopters and the army’s much-delayed medium-sized logistics truck purchases, to name just three – the fact is, as long as Canadian troops were in harm’s way in Afghanistan, there was a political impetus to ensure critical equipment was acquired in a very timely fashion.

With the media spotlight switched off, the Afghanistan mission concluded, and the CAF relegated to training and maintaining, some military analysts have predicted a return to what was later proclaimed to be a “decade of darkness.” The problem with that analogy is that during the 1990s, when those damaging cutbacks and reductions were implemented, the Canadian military was actually engaged in a steady stream of very high-profile peacekeeping deployments. With troops in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Kosovo and East Timor, there were often more soldiers deployed overseas at one time than at any point during the Afghanistan commitment.

In other words, the challenge facing the newly-appointed senior leadership at DND is even greater than the crisis of the ’90s. This time, they may really be in the dark.
Scott Taylor is the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps Canadian Military Magazine, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of eight books, including his 2010 memoir, Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting.