CDS: Is it Still the Best Job? Time will Tell.
Sep 15, 2012

On October 29th, General Tom Lawson was officially appointed as Canada’s new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), taking over from General Walt Natynczyk. Part of the Change of Command ceremony took place outdoors in front of the Canadian War Museum, in a bitter Ottawa wind and under leaden skies. The 21-gun salute must have startled passing morning commuters as it did a flock of Canada geese, which then formatted over the parade ground in an unofficial but very Canadian fly past. “How did they arrange that?” someone in the media gallery quipped.

Outgoing CDS General Walt Natynczyk was besieged with questions as he headed towards the museum. “General, any plans yet?” a journalist asked. “Not yet,” he replied, “we just got the kids home. It’s the first time they’ve all been home for a few years.” “Sir you’re a free man.” someone shouted. “Not yet,” he laughed, making for the museum, “not until the paperwork’s done.”

Inside, the audience was seated in the LeBreton Gallery, surrounded by World War II tanks and cannon. After playing “The Maple Leaf Forever” the band struck up the theme from “Hockey Night in Canada”. General Natynczyk was the first to speak at the podium. “Being the Chief of the Defence Staff,” he told the audience, “is the best job in Canada; every day he is responsible for the defence of the finest country in the world. Over the past four years we’ve been focused on winning the home game – that is, defending Canadians where they live.”

Natynczyk’s upbeat demeanor carried through, and when the Governor General, the Right Honorable David Johnson, kitted up in full uniform as Commander in Chief, got up to speak, General Natynczyk couldn’t help but good-naturedly stop him to adjust his beret to the correct angle.

The passing of the CDS pennants and signing of the transferring certificates was followed by thanks from the prime minister and minister of national defence to General Natynczyk for his years of service.

General Lawson’s theme was continuity – his father had been a World War II pilot in 414 Squadron. His 90-year-old mother was in the audience as was his son who also is in the air force – and now with 414 squadron.

The position of CDS began 50 years ago and Lawson is the 18th, which he reminded the audience as he acknowledged Ramsay Withers in the audience who had been the 6th. Some might consider the Canadian military to be small compared with some of its allies but, he said with pride, “we prefer to think of ourselves as sleek and agile.”

In the media scrum afterward, he fielded questions on cuts in the military – the prime minister had asked for “less tail and more tooth”. It was a time of tighter funds the new CDS admitted. Would he consider reducing the Forces size to 65,000 personnel? That was a decision for the government he said. The question of military procurement came up, and Lawson admitted it was a tough one to answer. He resorted to the political strategy of success and pointed out the successes – C17s, C130J, heavy lift helicopters, the frigate upgrades – all had come through the system. “What about the F-35?” he was asked. Lawson responded that the military was attempting to give everything required of it by the government. It was a Whole of Government approach and he felt very comfortable with that, asserting that the military’s role continues to be to provide the best advice on all the options. General Lawson concluded the scrum by saying that he had to get back to his 90-year-old mother.

Peter Pigott is a regular FrontLine contributor.
© FrontLine Defence 2012