In The Media

Who will be Canada's next top military commander?

Featuring: David Bercuson, Eric Morse, and Ferry de Kerckhove

The Globe and Mail
March 4, 2015

Picking Canada's top commander

General Tom Lawson has announced he will be stepping down as Chief of the Defence Staff and the search is now on for a replacement for Canada's senior military commander. The Globe says the Prime Minister already has a short list of candidates: Lieutenant-General John Vance, Commander of Joint Operations Command; Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy; Lieutenant-General Mike Day, Deputy Commander Allied Joint Force Command Naples; and Marquis Hainse, Commander of the Canadian Army. Three military experts are sharing their top picks with Globe readers.


The Panelists

  • David Bercuson: Professor, University of Calgary, and a senior fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
    The PM will go to the Navy for the new CDS.

  • Eric Morse: Co-chair of Security Studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.
    Norman probably has the edge.

  • Ferry de Kerckhove: Executive Vice-President of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute
    There's always politics behind every pick.


The Discussion

David Bercuson: The Chief of the Defence Staff is not only Canada’s top military leader, he is also responsible for bringing professional military advice to the prime minister. Although there are four very well qualified leaders to replace General Tom Lawson, the likely choice is going to be Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, currently commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Three of the four possible successors are army men. Lieutenant-General John Vance is commander of Joint Operations and distinguished himself when he led the Canadian military mission in Kandahar province. An original thinker and a charismatic officer, he quickly took control of Canadian counter-insurgency operations and is well thought of by US officers whom he worked with. His colleague, Lieutenant-General Mike Day is a hard charger, an original and quick thinker, and a man with extensive experience in special forces operations. The last of the three is Lieutenant General Marquis Haines, commander of the Canadian Army who is considered a soldier’s soldier, though not in the vein of retired CDS Rick Hillier.

So why Vice-Adm. Norman?

First, although there is no policy, official or otherwise, that lays out any rotation of the CDS post between the army, navy and air force, no navy person has filled the position since Acting CDS Larry Murray who guided the Canadian Forces through the very tough latter years of the Somalia Affair from the fall of 1996 to the fall of 1997. All subsequent chiefs up to Lawson were army or air force. Put simply, the government may well consider that it is the navy’s turn.

Second, morale is not good in the Royal Canadian Navy today. In the last year the navy has lost a good chunk of its sea-going capability. It no longer has the ability to deploy a naval task group with a command/air defence destroyer (there is only one left), it has no Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment vessels to provide fuel, spare parts, or other support services to Canadian naval ships at sea. Almost half of Canada’s Halifax class Frigates are undergoing re-fits or upgrades. For all intents and purposes, Canada has as small an ocean going navy today as it has had at any time since the late 1940s.

Third, the government’s ambitious plans to rebuild and upgrade the deep sea fleet is behind schedule. It may well be a decade or more before the RCN can deploy a sea going fleet as powerful as the navy Canada had in the late 1990s.

The appointment of Vice Admiral Norman may well be the government’s nod to the need to rebuild and reinvigorate The Royal Canadian Navy as soon as possible.


Eric Morse: The change in Chiefs of Defence Staff could happen any time between summer and fall of this year, within shouting distance of a 2015 federal election. The appointment of a CDS is always ‘political’, but the politics are usually internal within the government - in the end the choice lies with the Prime Minister - and it stays internal.

Given the major procurement issues now on the Government’s plate, it comes as a mild surprise that two of the men on the shortlist that emerged late Tuesday are known as battlefield operations men (Lieutenant-General John Vance and Lieutenant-General Mike Day). This might reflect a view in government that procurement management is not primarily a responsibility for the Chief, or it might reflect the increasingly tense international situation and a view that it demands someone with a more focussed grasp of sharp-end operations than in the post-2010 period after combat forces left Afghanistan.

RCAF General Tom Lawson’s appointment as current CDS came as a surprise to most observers, but it represented a major change in direction over Gen. Rick Hillier. Gen. Hillier had had a very high (and positive) public profile for a Canadian defence chief, essentially becoming an icon for Canada’s war in Afghanistan (and known for standing up for returning wounded soldiers in the period). This did not sit well at the political levels. The Conservatives had inherited him from the Liberals in 2006, but historically, Canadian governments have never been happy with generals in the spotlight under any circumstances.

This time, on top of the coincidence with the election run-up, Canada is again involved in a combat mission in Iraq, with an at-times-heated media and political sideshow over what ‘combat’ actually means - while the budgetary thunderheads are piling up ever higher, particularly on the naval front. Very large naval capital projects include the Joint Support Ship Project, Arctic Patrol Ship Project, and the Amphibious Assault Ship Project. All are lagging badly and exacerbated by accidents to the existing aging fleet. The Iraq mission will almost certainly exert pressure is on the budgetary front. Theoretically, contingent expenditures on war-fighting missions do not impact long-term capital expenditures, but it all comes out of the same taxpayer’s pocket.

Of the four names in play on the shortlist, my heart says Mr. Vance, but my head says Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

Lt.-Gen. Vance is currently head of Canadian Joint Operations Command (responsible at the same time for forces deployed in Iraq and Eastern Europe), and a veteran of two command tours in Kandahar, A highly respected operations commander, his trademark candour has defined the press conferences he has given on the very sensitive Iraqi mission. He’d be an excellent wartime Chief.

Vice-Adm. Norman is currently Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. There has not been a Navy man appointed CDS in a generation, and then only briefly; it could be time. Always excepting the never-ending saga of the F-35, which at this point is pretty well beyond any service chief to help, it is the Navy that has the biggest procurement problems at the moment. As Navy chief, Mr. Norman is well respected and can be expected to have a good handle on naval procurement. As against that, if he were appointed he might be suspected by the other services of having been put there to further the Navy’s interests, but those sorts of rivalries aren’t usually on a prime minister’s radar - and even a Navy man can’t make money appear where there isn’t any.


Ferry de Kerckhove: With General Tom Lawson making it known that he wishes to leave after three years as Chief of the Defence Staff, speculation has started about who should replace him, and reports say a shortlist has already been prepared. There is no shortage of talent in the field, which makes the process seem like a bookie game.

Politics will certainly come into play. We are in an election year, and Quebec matters, notably since for once the province seems to be in sync with the federal government on security, most likely a result of the recurring agonizing questioning about the “accommodements raisonnables” and an unfortunate increase in xenophobia following the murder of soldiers in St. Jean and at the Parliament in Ottawa. This could favour a francophone candidate, such as the excellent Vice-Chief of Staff General Guy Thibault or Army Commander Marquis Hainse. Although language rotation for high posts is often talked about at length, it has never been the order of the day for the CDS. Gen. Thibault would bring along management know-how as well as force development experience.

Some would argue that the “other rotation” matters more, i.e. between services, and that it is time for a Navy man. Vice-Admiral Mark Norman has demonstrated remarkable composure and resilience at the most trying time for the Navy: the retirement of our supply ships; the unending saga of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy; and managing to get the Artic Offshore Patrol Ships and the Surface Combatants procurement process underway.

To the extent that Canada will continue to be engaged in the foreseeable future both in supporting Ukraine and the East European NATO members, as well as in the war against ISIS, the inkling might be towards either an Army or an Air Force three-star, although a second Air Force CDS in a row might be a bit sensitive.

To the extent that our political masters want to be comfortable with people they already know, this might exclude far away candidates such as General Mike Day, who is deputy commander Allied Joint Force Command Naples or Vice-Admiral Robert Davidson in Brussels. This leaves the choice between Lieutenant-General John Vance, commander of Joint Operations Command, and Marquis Hainse, commander of the Canadian Army. It is possible that your average Canadian may have heard more about the former. With a government bent on controlling messages, this might actually play in favour of the latter.

The talent pool is considerable. Gen. Thibault is as safe a hand as any. But if he is not on the short list, it may mean he does not want to be on it. Given our involvement in two crisis zones, the Commander of Joint Operations would not be out of question, but given their command experience, it would not exclude the others for that matter. Any selection, however, will have to look beyond operations but the ability to manage a massive department still in the process of renewal, with many unresolved procurement issues before it. The ability to function within the Ottawa environment and with other government departments may prove to be the most required attribute. At the end of the day, it could be a toss between Mark Norman and Marquis Hainse. They are both outstanding.

Author's note: the opinion here is personal, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Institute. 

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email