OTTAWA - A behind-the-scenes battle over who will succeed the country's defence chief has spilled out in public and exposed the bitter, often conflicting visions of where the Canadian military is headed following the Afghan war.
Rumours have been rampant that the Harper government is willing to go outside the ranks of Canadian Forces brass in order to recall a trusted, retired officer to fill the shoes of Gen. Walter Natynczyk, whose departure is expected within weeks.
The name that cropped up the most was that of former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who headed the Canadian army until 2010 and penned a milestone report that recommended a radical overhaul of the military command structure.
Leslie, now a senior executive at the CGI Group, would not comment Tuesday. But a media report that claimed he'd been interviewed for the job was roundly denied by several well-placed sources, 24 hours after it was published.
The other name in the mix is said to be retired air force lieutenant-general Angus Watt, who now heads the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.
The overheated rumour mill is likely a symptom of infighting as Prime Minister Stephen Harper pushes ahead with planned National Defence reforms, said Douglas Bland, chair of defence management studies at Queens University
Leslie's vision of a leaner command structure and $1 billion in savings won rave reviews among the prime minister's staff and Conservative government officials, but earned a frosty reception within the senior establishment at National Defence.
The top-heavy military structure is a legacy of wartime reforms implemented by both Natynczyk and his predecessor as defence chief, retired general Rick Hillier.
The dismantling of the costly system began with last spring's deficit-slashing budget.
If Leslie or another retired officer is indeed being considered, that would suggest Natynczyk's recent reforms did not go far enough to satisfy the PMO, said Bland.
"I would say it's not lack of confidence in the other candidates, but they would have more confidence in Andy Leslie to carry out the reforms that — as I understand it — the prime minister was keen on," said Bland, who has written a book about Canada's modern defence chiefs.
In June, a selection committee of deputy ministers drew up a list, and a round of interviews followed. All of the candidates under consideration at that point included serving officers, namely the current vice chief of defence staff, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson; the country's top officer at NORAD, Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson; and the head of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison.
An internal round of finger-pointing followed in the wake of the Leslie story on Monday, said sources at National Defence.
Leslie's supporters saw it as an attempt to undermine or scuttle his potential candidacy — not a far-fetched notion in tight-lipped Ottawa. Still others wanted to blame fans of Leslie, who are still in uniform, for promoting him too loudly.
Some in the military have lamented privately that by going outside, the PMO is slighting existing officers and undermining morale among the upper echelons of the Canadian Forces.
Bland said it would be unusual, but not unprecedented, to reach into the ranks of retired officers to fill the top slot. It happened in the 1950s and more recently in the 1990s when retired general John de Chastelain was recalled after the Somalia scandal from his stint as Canada's ambassador in Washington.
In both cases, the government of the day had a specific agenda, not unlike Conservatives today, who are quietly desperate to remove the thorn that is National Defence after a series of political controversies and spending missteps, including the ongoing fiasco surrounding the F-35 stealth fighter.
Leslie's report, a year ago, called for cutting a bloated headquarters establishment in Ottawa comprised of 20,000 uniformed members and civil servants who manage operations and administration. He recommended cuts and reallocating resources in measures that could have affected up to 11,000 jobs.
The report also recommended cutting spending on myriad outside contractors and consultants.
Appearing before a Senate committee last fall after his retirement, Leslie acknowledged his ideas were not popular among the current senior ranks at National Defence headquarters: “I think the only person who agrees with all of my recommendations is me.”
Since the report, National Defence has implemented some changes, notably the restructuring and consolidation of three commands in June. The merger was aimed at slicing about 25 per cent of the "overhead" for each command, although it's not clear how many staff jobs — military or civilian — will be cut.
The steps fell short of what Leslie recommended.
Bland said the fact Harper's office is so involved in the search is intriguing and suggests the prime minister wants to see meaningful change.
It's a departure from the days when selecting a military chief was a much less formal, almost secondary, affair, he added. "It's very rare that the prime minister would become really involved in this kind of thing."
Bland recounted how one former top commander sat outside the defence minister's office with other candidates in the 1990s and was told he got the job when the minister walked past, pointed to him and said: "You're the CDS."
"Nobody paid any attention," said Bland, who has interviewed all former defence chiefs.
"Often it was simply the minister would take it in hand and appoint somebody and if they were politically clean, that was it."