by David Akin
In appointing air force Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson to be Canada’s next chief of defence staff, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sending the message about as loudly and clearly as he could that Canada is going to spend billions on F-35 stealth fighter planes no matter what.
Moreover, Lawson’s pick can be read as confirmation that the prime minister believes that closer co-operation and even integration with the Americans to defend the North American perimeter is now the top priority for a Canadian Forces that will not be getting as much money has it has previously from the Harper government.
“The prime minister has been actively engaged in this selection process,” said Doug Bland, the Queen’s University professor, defence expert and author of a book on Canadians chiefs of defence staff (CDS). “This isn’t (defence minister) Peter MacKay’s selection. He’s obviously been involved in the process but I think the new CDS has to fit the prime minister’s agenda. And I think Tom Lawson does that.”
After last spring’s auditor general’s report showed what a complete shambles the F-35 costing program was, the Harper government shifted much of the spending responsibility to Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose and away from defence. There was some vague talk from the government that it might consider other aircraft but Lawson’s appointment should end all such speculation.
First, Lawson is a former fighter pilot and was most recently posted at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. His worldview has been deeply shaped by a long professional association with the United States Air Force and the USAF generals he’s been hanging around with are gung-ho on the F-35.
“I would think perhaps that one of the reasons he may have been selected is because he has a lot of experience with NORAD, North American defence, and with the Americans who run those systems and it might suggest to some that that fits the prime minister’s agenda of literally Canada First Defence Strategy and a shift away from operations in far-off places of which we know nothing to an operational framewrok built on the defence of North America,” Bland said. “One important advantage Tom has is that he knows lots of American air force generals and defence people in the United States who are concerned with North American air defence. So he’s got that ready access.”
This year, in the Canadian Military Journal, Lawson co-wrote a long essay about NORAD in which he approvingly quoted testimony fellow air force Lt.-Gen Andre Deschamps made to the House of Commons defence committee: “It (is) clear that only a fifth-generation fighter could satisfy our needs in the increasingly complex future security environment.”
The only “fifth-generation fighter” going these days is Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
In that essay, Lawson also hinted that it may be time for a Canadian government to review the decision by former prime minister Paul Martin not to participate in American efforts to develop a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system.
Lawson doesn’t come right out and say that Canadian participation in the U.S. BMD is a good idea, but he does lay out a rationale for why it might consider it – a change in global threat levels – and then concludes ballistic missile defence “will remain an issue for the Canadian government.”
This seems an odd statement to be making in 2012 because Harper rejected requests by former U.S. president George W. Bush to get with the BMD program.
How, then, does Lawson conclude that this is still “an issue” for the Harper PMO?
There are some defence watchers in Ottawa who believe Lawson was not Harper’s first choice, that others turned down the chance to be the leader of the Forces in an era of cutbacks, and that Harper eventually settled for what he could get.
The internal politics at National Defence HQ being what they are, likely all sorts of theories are being pushed around.
But intentional or not, there will be no escaping the fact that the PM has appointed a guy who loves the F-35.
Lawson, to his credit, sounded like a seasoned politician on this issue when quizzed by reporters Monday, downplaying accusations he is an F-35 cheerleader.
“The F-35 is a program that is hitting milestones and doing quite well,” he said. “It will continue to contend for the replacement for the CF-18.”
He explained that his role will be a mere advisor to the government for it is, after all, the government’s call on what to buy.
“I think the greater question is the government’s focus on ensuring the Canadians have a combat-capable platform for the air force, the navy and the army. 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.”
And let no one mistake that lead: The Harper government is buying F-35s.
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