Lawson not a guarantee for F-35 selection

After the initial flurry of comments following the appointment of Lieutenant-General Thomas Lawson as Chief of Defence Staff, some more measured observations about the duties and responsibilities of the position and the nature of the man are coming out.

Professor Philippe Lagassé, a well-respected and balanced commentator, has written an article entitled “The Measure of a CDS” for the Canadian International Council.  It is well word a read.  He downplays the most common observation that argues Lawson’s appointment signals the F-35 is the aircraft the government will select.  Instead, he rightly highlights Lawson’s statement that “his job was to offer the best military advice to the government, while letting Cabinet decide how a replacement for the CF-18s will be chosen and on what basis.”  This is a very adroit statement that will cement his role as a leader who understands defence governance and his administrative responsibilities.

Taking a cue from the shipbuilding process, the newly established National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) will be required to analyse and assess the options before reporting to cabinet about its recommendations for a new fighter aircraft.  This is the way it should have been handled from the start, but it is far better to get it sorted out now than let this comedy-farce about what is the latest ‘political truth’ play out any longer.  Hopefully the lesson will be that this process should be followed for all future procurement decisions.

Lagassé also remarks that Lawson’s appointment has as much to do with the Hillier-Leslie legacy of rivalry and demonstrative behaviours as anything else.  The urbane and polished Lawson will not resort to the remonstrative tactics of Hillier, “who was wiling to bring his disagreements with ministers and civilians into the public arena,” or the divisive theories of Leslie, whose controversial Report on Transformation won the support of the prime minister but alienated much of the leadership of the Canadian Forces and shattered the Defence Team Concept with the public service.  David Bercuson’s article “Defence chief’s selection sends a coded message” in the Globe and Mail states “The fate of the Leslie report was surely a major consideration in Gen. Lawson’s selection.”

The appointment of Lawson is a way of making a break from the Hillier-Natynczyk Afghanistan quagmire and the Hillier-Leslie arguments over transformation and headquarters structure (although it is very likely Hillier will have lots more to say on this account).  The NFPS structure will help to add credibility to whatever fighter replacement decision is reached.  However, I think that there is another important issue that has yet to be commented upon, and it relates to the last sentence in Lagassé’s article: “With difficult procurement files and budget cuts on the horizon, General Lawson was a prudent bet.”

It is not a certainty that the F-35 will be selected.  There have been increasingly critical commentaries about its mounting cost, performance limitations and immature state of development.  Canada has had disappointments with aircraft selections in the past and the RCAF had to settle for less capability for the cost of an acceptable number of aircraft.  This could happen again.  It will be far better for the government to have an air force fighter pilot with extensive educational and operational experience with the USAF as CDS when whatever decision is taken, positively or negatively, than another officer of any other service.  The optics of a naval CDS telling the RCAF that it cannot have this or that aircraft, while an major renewal of almost the entire naval fleet looms on the horizon, would be a political fiasco for the government.

The decision to delay the Arctic and Offshore Patrol ship by three years creates a ‘window of opportunity’ for the government to resolve the policy options for the future navy-coast guard relationship, reshuffle the shipbuilding program, and assess the ‘talent pool’ amongst the navy’s next generation of leaders.  A naval officer will most likely be the next CDS in about three years.  The RCN will have to provide a leader with credentials, vision and a clear understanding of how the procurement system works: the military states requirements, the public service recommends, and cabinet decides.