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Harper names air force general Tom Lawson as new chief of the defence staff

OTTAWA - The old adage that winning the war is easier than winning the peace might be something Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson takes to heart as he assumes his place as the country's next top military commander.

The former fighter pilot was named Monday as the new chief of the defence staff, replacing the retiring Gen. Walt Natynczyk, who held the job for over four years.

The date has yet to be set for a formal change of command.

Introducing Lawson to the national media, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he has big "combat boots to fill," but military observers say the new chief's battles will mostly be in the back rooms of Ottawa, rather than in far-flung corners of the globe.

MacKay praised the smooth, low-key officer as a man who leaves a strong impression.

"In my time as minister of National Defence, I've heard time and time again from all personnel of all ranks the extremely personal bonds that he has developed with colleagues, staff and former military college students and about the lasting, positive impressions that he has made on all of those who have had the privilege of serving with him," MacKay told the assembled media.

And he may need all of that charm.

The 37-year air force veteran, who is currently deputy commander of Norad — the North American Aerospace Defence Command — inherits a military in transition out of the Afghan war, a Conservative government in cost-cutting mode and a major political-public relations fiasco in the F-35 stealth fighter.

The government is looking to save as much as $1.5 billion with cost-cutting and reorganization in what's been described as a bloated command structure in Ottawa.

Lawson said he is honoured and delighted to be taking over command of "an organization in which I have quite literally grown up."

His career trajectory has taken him from the cockpits of CF-104 Starfighters and CF-18 Hornets to the staid halls of the Royal Military College as commandant. He has also served in some of the major planning arms of the military, including a stint as assistant chief of air staff.

In that job, he was knee-deep in planning for the F-35 and was eventually asked by the Harper government to support the program in a speaking tour after MacKay announced the selection of the Lockheed-Martin jet in 2010.

He's known as a backer of the troubled program, but on Monday he stuck to the government's carefully scripted position that all options are being considered.

"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."

But Lawson made it clear it was his job to provide hus "best advice throughout the process."

It was during last year's bombing campaign in Libya that Lawson's name became prominent outside of the tightly knit defence community when he acted as air force spokesman during public briefings.

But his stint at National Defence headquarters a few years earlier saw him as a key player in the team assembled by former defence chief Rick Hillier to help reshape the military in 2005-06 to fight the Afghan war. He'll need those skills in his new job.

"Lt.-Gen Lawson is coming into the role as CDS at an important time within the Canadian Forces history — a time of continued adjustment and defence transformation to the needs of the times and the future, be they among the vast horizon on the Arctic tundra, in the military training schools of northern Afghanistan or on the seas and waterways, near and far," MacKay said.

The Harper's government's marquee defence blueprint — the Canada First Defence Strategy — is being rewritten with an eye to making both equipment and expectations fit within a leaner budget.

There is every indication that the military is under pressure to give up some capabilities, which the army did earlier this year when it retired its aging anti-aircraft vehicles.

The "refreshed strategy" is expected to be revealed in late fall, but despite the tight timeline, Lawson said "every indication is we'll be asked for our advice in the development of what follows."

Managing that transition may prove to be a bigger challenge than dealing with the F-35, said Douglas Bland, a Queen's University defence expert.

Lawson's background and his appointment could signal that the Harper government's appetite for foreign military adventures, such as Afghanistan and Libya, is on the wane, Bland said.

"He is a North American air defence kind of guy and if the government preference is that the Canadian Forces be used closer to home — away from these messy operations overseas that don't directly relate to the defence of Canada and the spending of money — then you select somebody who comes from that family and that's where he comes from."

The new chief and MacKay both praised Natynczyk's work over the last four years.

"Gen. Natynczyk will pass to me a CF that has been carefully nurtured and one that displays a tremendous professionalism in all areas," Lawson said. "Whether at home or abroad, our men and women reflect the best that Canada has to offer."

In a speech to military members last week, Harper offered similar praise for Natynczyk in a sign that change was coming:

"Let me use this opportunity in front of so many of your people here to thank you and congratulate you on over four years of fine service as chief of the defence staff of Canada," he said.

Natynczyk issued a statement late Monday congratulating Lawson.

"He is a great officer and gentleman who will continue to lead the men and women of the Canadian Forces with distinction," he said.

"I know he will enjoy the support of great generals, admirals, officers, and equally, all the ranks, through to the most junior privates and ordinary seamen."

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