Next defence chief will signal Liberals’ priorities for the military

OTTAWA—Time is running out for the federal Liberal government to name a new commander of the Canadian Armed Forces before it faces a confidence vote, with some observers worrying a delay could leave the military in limbo in the event of an election.

Yet exactly who will be selected to succeed Gen. Jonathan Vance as chief of the defence staff remains a mystery because while there may be one seemingly obvious choice, there are others who might suit the Liberals better.

“There’s a generalized understanding that any of the individuals who have made it to three stars have demonstrated a pretty strong portfolio in terms of competencies and strengths,” said Canadian Forces College professor Alan Okros.

“It then becomes an issue about where does the priority fall?”

The Liberal government has quietly indicated it wants to announce the new chief of defence staff before the speech from the throne on Sept. 23. Sources at the Department of National Defence, who are not authorized to discuss the search publicly, said interviews were conducted this past week

Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who previously served as vice-chief of the defence staff, is one of those hoping for an announcement before a possible election.

“You just don’t want to have a chief in waiting with a chief caretaker in place,” said Thibault, who now heads the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

The seemingly obvious choice is Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau.

The former Ottawa police officer who re-enrolled in the Forces after 9/11 spent years in the field before becoming commander of Canada’s special forces in 2014, at a time when the elite soldiers were in Iraq and elsewhere.

Rouleau has since been burnishing his credentials in Ottawa, first as commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, which oversees all domestic and foreign operations, before recently taking over as Vance’s second-in-command.

“I think Mike is really the full-meal deal of all the current three-stars,” said Thibault, echoing an assessment shared by many defence insiders and observers.

Rouleau’s appointment would signal a continuation of the current path set by Vance’s five-year tenure — the longest in modern Canadian history — and enshrined in the Liberals’ defence policy.

That policy — known as Strong, Secure, Engaged — released in 2017 promised massive billions of dollars in investments over the next 20 years for more troops, new equipment such as warships and jets, and new capabilities in cyber and space.

A similar signal would be sent if the Liberal government tapped Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre or Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Art McDonald.

They, along with Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates, who recently moved into Rouleau’s old job as head of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, would bring their own skills and styles, but they are also viewed as largely similar in terms of continuity.

Some worry the economic damage caused by COVID-19 has made the defence policy unaffordable and that the government might bring out the axe.

“If the government writ large turns its mind to budget cutting and deficit reduction, then National Defence is very, very unlikely to survive that for a number of different reasons,” said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The biggest one is just the straight arithmetic of it being the largest share of federal budget share.”

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Vice-Admiral Darren Hawco was one of the key architects of the defence policy, with insiders speaking in glowing terms of the way the former frigate commander managed the backroom battles that led to its development.

That included managing the priorities of the Air Force, Army and Navy against a set pot of money — an experience that would be especially important if the government wanted to start cutting.

Many have wondered whether the Liberals will appoint a woman to become Canada’s top military officer for the first time.

Such a move would fit with the Liberals’ progressive, feminist credentials and signal the government wants to see more action on addressing cultural issues such as racism as well as sexual misconduct and hate in the ranks.

“There is still this huge frustration in the Prime Minister’s Office (about) the military in not making progress on the sexual harassment side, and particularly the harassment, discrimination and hateful conduct stuff,” said Okros.

“It then becomes that issue of who is the right person to do that, and at one level, symbolic decisions may be of importance.”

That is where the first two female lieutenant-generals in Canada’s history — Christine Whitecross and Francis Allen — come up.

Whitecross in particular has been seen as a potential contender for the chief of the defence staff position for years, and the fact she spearheaded the military’s fight against sexual misconduct in the early going could be a feather in her cap.

Yet neither Whitecross nor Allen have much experience in the field and Perry said having a chief of the defence staff who didn’t command a warship, fly an aircraft or lead soldiers in the field would be almost as groundbreaking as appointing a woman.

“That would certainly be almost as notable for an organization that has a lot of cultural orientation around the operational end of things and putting people with those types of backgrounds into the top job,” Perry said.

Whichever way the government goes, says Thibault, “all of the three-stars currently in the mix wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t have very significant experience and credibility and knowledge and skills and the right leadership qualities.

“So you can take good confidence that they’re all bona fide Canadian Forces leaders. And whoever is picked, I think we would recognize at the very beginning that they will all bring something unique and relevant to the position as chief of defence staff.”