All eyes on new commander as military faces significant challenges
When Jonathan Vance formally takes over as Canada’s top military commander, one of the first things he will be forced to address is sexual misconduct in the ranks.
The Conservative government tapped Vance to replace Gen. Tom Lawson as chief of defence staff three days before a scathing report that found an “underlying sexual culture” in the Canadian Armed Forces that is “hostile” to women.
Lawson has since faced stinging criticism for how he’s handled the issue, and many people within and outside of the Canadian Armed Forces are hoping Vance will use Friday’s change of command ceremony in downtown Ottawa to break from his predecessor’s perceived waffling.
But sexual misconduct represents only one test Vance and the Canadian Armed Forces will face in the coming weeks, months and years. Many, such as the state of the economy and October’s federal election result, are outside their control. How Vance responds could have an impact for a very long time.
The military is currently training friendly forces in Ukraine and Iraq, bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, and helping NATO check Russian military activity in eastern and central Europe. It is also combating wildfires in different parts of Canada while standing ready to respond to any number of other threats.
Insiders say this is Vance’s clear strength. Commissioned as an infantry officer, the 34-year veteran has spent much of his career in the field or managing missions. This includes command positions in Afghanistan and, since September 2014, overseeing every Canadian military operation at home and abroad.
Yet many of the challenges facing the Canadian Armed Forces today have nothing to do with war. For example, National Defence has been required to swallow billions of dollars in spending reductions to help erase the federal deficit without affecting frontline operations. Prime Minister Stephen Harper described it as “more teeth, less tail.”
Senior officers say the military is now close to the breaking point, and something is going to have to give if more spending cuts are ordered in light of recent economic developments. That could include cutting personnel or closing bases, which the Conservative government has so far refused to do.
“If they still stick with the idea that deficit fighting is the most important thing, there will need to be some adjustments,” said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “It doesn’t mean it is going to have to be dramatic or draconian, but a couple thousand less people will make a big difference.”
Complicating matters is the lack of a long-term vision for the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence. The Conservative government says its Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS), which was introduced in 2008, remains relevant.
But the CFDS was always considered less a strategy and more a shopping list drawn up before the economic recession made it unaffordable, three years into what was supposed to be a 20-year run. Insiders say plans to update the strategy have now been quietly shelved until after the election.
That means no matter which party wins on Oct. 19, change is coming. Vance will be at the centre to provide input to the government as it draws up its plans, or to direct military officials on implementing the government’s orders.
Some argue Vance could actually have more influence with an NDP or Liberal government as they will rely on him to bring them up to speed on what the military is doing and to chart a path forward. But others aren’t so sure.
Rick Hillier was chief of defence staff the last time there was a change in government. Appointed by Paul Martin in 2005, Hillier’s outspoken, populist approach was accepted by the Liberals. But his style caused friction when the Conservatives came to power in 2006.
Harper is widely believed to have appointed Vance as chief of defence staff because of his background managing military missions. But Perry said his operational experience could be a poor fit under an NDP or Liberal government, both of which have promised to end Canada’s bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.
“He’s been appointed under this (Conservative) government,” Perry said. “But he can only do what the government in power wants him to do.”