On October 29, General Tom Lawson accepted the responsibility of Chief of the Defence Staff from General Walt Natynczyk during a ceremony at the Canadian War Museum. Though Lawson admits he did not join the Canadian Forces with any grand vision, he is inextricably tied to its past and its future through his father and his children. His priorities, he said, would revolve around leadership, caring and preparing: ensuring the success of current missions, caring for the men and women of the CF, and incorporating the lessons of past and current operations to prepare for future challenges.

A fighter pilot by trade, over a 33-year career since graduating from the Royal Military College in 1979 Lawson has held a range of command and staff positions, including a key role with the CF Transformation Team in 2005 where he led the stand-up of the Strategic Joint Staff organization. He has served as Wing Commander of 8 Wing Trenton, commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston and, most recently, as deputy commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command. He spoke with LGen (Ret’d) J. O. Michel Maisonneuve, academic director of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean and a member of Vanguard’s editorial advisory board, during the college’s 60th anniversary celebrations.


Knowing you’ve been in the job for only a few weeks, did you come in with a vision of what you wanted to do as Chief of the Defence Staff?

I didn’t have a vision per se. I was delighted with the jobs that I picked up along the way and they gave me a sense of our youth and our professionalism. We had gone to NORAD thinking that this was our last job in uniform (and this time we meant it!) so coming back to interview for the job of CDS had me for the first time thinking about what the future might hold. I think in a huge country like ours with 35 million people across a nation that could easily support a billion, it’s hard to be fully efficient; you can’t have just one base in the center of the country. We’ve got three oceans, we have regions that must be tended to, we have land force areas, and bases that serve us quite well for the sovereignty role now. So anybody coming into the CDS position is not going to mess too much with that. Then we’ve got this set of cards that were dealt fairly significantly both to Walt [Natynczyk] just prior to him leaving but also to me at my change of command by the Prime Minister and by the Minister. It was quite clear what the marching orders were and these suggest that we are on the slight down-glide after years of an up-glide. So that limits any visioning I’m going to do. I think it would be fair to say that I benefited throughout my career from the tremendous leadership that I’ve seen right from the time I entered as a Cadet to now. I took over from a leader, a classmate…

…albeit from a different military College…

…exactly, from a different College, but I could see how he added energy to any room he entered. So visioning within that context, now that we are out of the combat phase of our [Afghanistan] operations, our forces are able to focus on the lessons learned from combat. We can restore our equipment and focus on bringing lessons into doctrine as well as providing a training regimen, as [Commander of Canadian Army LGen] Peter Devlin says, that excites our young men and women and prepares them for the next thing; it is a very uncertain world out there, and we need to be ready with an array of capacities in our armed forces.

Speaking of capacities, how will you be able to justify keeping the capabilities that have been identified and required for the Canada First Defence Strategy with all the current constraints?

Well, justification is easy. I’ve been given a direct order by the Prime Minister to keep all my capabilities, and all my people as well, while seeking efficiencies to get under the budget line. While we should and will be part of the solution as we cut the debt, we must hold on to capabilities that have been so hard won over the years. So my marching orders are to hold on to all these things while the government continues to commit to an investment plan for the CFDS. Overall, it is a very heartening message.

Knowing the budgetary pressures, do you see a way of ensuring that we not have too many delays in equipment procurement?

[Laughs] Do I ever wish I held some levers to unblock delays in military procurement! It is an enormous issue in Canada as well as for all our Allies because as you invest the dozen of billions of dollars to upgrade in-service combat equipment that is going to be with you for a generation or two, you need to identify the right statement of requirement for the next generation of equipment. We’ve got excellent industry out there looking to fight hard for those dollars and it’s amazing that we ever actually get anything out of this tortured process; the heartening thing is that we have. We are going to very clearly continue to state the operational requirement for those things that are written in the Canada First Defence Strategy and we will continue to provide our military advice all along to add value to the process.

With the transition to the training mission in Afghanistan, do you see a challenge in retaining our personnel?

We used to have a recruiting challenge; in fact it’s now a great story. As we moved up from 55,000 to 68,000 regular personnel we didn’t have too much trouble getting people in; the economy, excitement of the missions, etc. But swallowing that number of new personnel was a massive challenge; we always had an enormous Basic Training List and Advanced Training List and the training effects were frustratingly long. We are now at the numbers we want with our intake at about 4500 per year with about an 8 to 1 ratio between those applying for those positions to those who we bring in, which is a pretty good ratio. Now, our challenge is to keep those people in and speaks to the army’s recognition that they need to “train to excite.” We have young men and women who have come back with combat skills, who have seen the excitement of being deployed. At the same time, we have some who have been heavily stressed. Some are saying, I love the career; I love the chance to practice what I’ve been taught; but now give me a bit of a rest. So we’ll look to consolidate what we’ve got in the next while.

What about the impact on the reserve component?

Through the combat phase we almost extended our regular force on the back of our reservists but we now need to hold on to some of those great men and women as we cut the number of class Bs. This will provide us an opportunity to get back to the classic class A reservist and a better balance between the regular force and reserves. I think there’s some frustration but I think we are going to have to adjust to that a little bit.

Talking about the class B cuts brings us to the subject of Canadian Forces transformation and the Leslie report. As we move forward and presumably implement parts of the Leslie report, what would be your top priority right now in terms of Canadian Forces transformation?

There were a lot of excellent recommendations in the Leslie report and many of them have already been implemented, such as the CJOC [Canadian Joint Operations Command] which brought three commands together and their associated savings; we’ve talked about the reserves, rebalancing in terms of class B to class A, and we’ve seen some decrease in the numbers of our public service partners. We are now moving ahead with an initiative which is truly co-owned by the department and the CF, called the Defence Renewal Team, and it is looking at doing things differently across the entire force. Typically through your and my career we saw silos between the army, navy and air forces for the production of capabilities. Our bases have been pretty much silos. There’s a belief that if we changed the business to look for horizontal efficiencies across those silos we might be able to find savings that can be pulled out and put back into our capabilities. This requires another look at the entire partnership within Defence.

I would finish with a question on a personal level and that is, what are your feelings now, after going through the maelstrom of being the Chief of Defence Staff non-stop for the last three weeks (including your wife Kelly) where there is no day off?

Well, I’m proud of the integrity of our armed forces. The CF operational trade mark is strong. In the CDS’s office, we are all new and heavily engaged in the role of both leadership and stewardship of Defence. We are not surprised that there are lengthy days, but every file that comes onto my desk is one that deserves CDS attention, so it is normal. The quality of the work that I see is consistently extremely high, and when I go out I get refreshed from seeing our men and women. I had a chance to head out to Halifax and step onboard HMCS Windsor before its first submerge. She is going to be the second submarine on the march to higher readiness, and to see those young men and women working on their equipment, you are able to steal their energy. As far as Kelly, I’ll let her speak for herself but I think she’s pretty pleased with these first few weeks.