Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson, a former fighter pilot and air force veteran, is taking over the Canadian Forces as chief of defence staff, replacing Gen. Walt Natynczyk.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment in a statement Monday morning. Shortly afterwards, Lawson was introduced as the new top general by Defence Minister Peter MacKay at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

"Lt.-Gen Lawson is an exceptional, dynamic leader who brings a great deal of domestic, international and operational experience to the table. He has the respect of his peers, the admiration of his subordinates and our allies and the complete confidence of both the prime minister and myself," MacKay said.

"Throughout his time in uniform, he has been deeply committed to the service of Canada through the Canadian Forces," said MacKay.

Lawson, who has been in the air force for 37 years, said he is "honoured" to have been chosen and is "delighted" to take the helm of an organization he said he grew up in. Lawson's father also served in the military as an air force pilot from 1941 to 1945.

"As CDS, of course, I'll be responsible for providing the government with the best military advice and ensuring that the CF maintain the finest and broadest capabilities available for government assignment as required," Lawson said.

He said Canada's military has been carefully nurtured by Natynczyk and that displays tremendous professionalism.

"Whether at home or abroad, our men and women reflect the best that Canada has to offer," he said. Lawson said he looks forward to working with the senior ranks in the Canadian Forces and to addressing the needs of its members.

He said his priorities will be ensuring that the Canadian Forces have the training and equipment they need, looking after wounded soldiers and providing his best advice to the government.

Natynczyk congratulated Lawson on his appointment, calling him a "great officer and gentleman" who will lead the Canadian Forces "with distinction."

In a statement posted on the National Defence web site, Natynczyk said "a timeline and process of transferring the responsibilities" would be done over the coming days and that "formal arrangements for a change of command ceremony will be communicated in due course."

Natynczyk said it was an honour to serve and that he would continue to do so until he transfered his dutes to Lawson. 

Thomas J. Lawson bio

Personal: Wife Kelly, sons Benjamin, Neil and Jack.

Education: RMC, Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering, 1979; Master's in Electrical Engineering, 1985. Master's in Public Administration, Auburn University.

Military training: Completed wings and fighter training at 421 Squadron in Baden, Germany, 1981. Completed CF-18 Hornet training at Cold Lake, Alta. Flew with 421 and 439 Squadrons, Baden. Completed USAF Air War College Program. 

Pilot experience: Has flown CF-104 Starfighter, CF-18 Hornet fighter jet, Challenger jet.

Key appointments: Commanding Officer, 412 Squadron, 1998; Appointed to Canadian Forces Transformation Team, 2005; Commander of CFB Trenton, 2006; Commandant of Royal Military College, 2007; Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, 2009; Deputy Commander, NORAD, 2011.

Source: Canadian Forces

With an air force background, Lawson is taking over the top role at a time when the government is choosing a replacement aircraft for the CF-18 fleet. He was asked whether he will champion the F-35 as the best plane to buy.

"We will continue to take our lead on the F-35 from the government," he said. When asked for a more clear response on whether he backs the F-35 project, Lawson responded, "The F-35 is a program that is hitting milestones and doing quite well. It will continue to contend for the replacement for the CF-18."

The F-35 program has been an ongoing source of controversy on Parliament Hill. Opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of misleading Canadians on the cost of buying 65 of the planes and the spring report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson prompted the government to revamp its handling of the file.

MacKay's department is no longer responsible for it and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose is now leading a new group  that will be responsible for the ultimate decision on whether to go ahead with the F-35.

Lawson has been a proponent of the F-35, retired colonel Alain Pellerin told CBC News.

"He'll have to tread very carefully with that file, which has become a major political issue and will be until the next election I would suggest," Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations, said. "He will have to toe the government line, their policy, and explain it to the public and to the Forces."

Another challenge for the new top general will be leading the Canadian Forces at a time when the Department of National Defence is dealing with budget cuts, he said. 

Pellerin said Lawson was one of several qualified candidates considered for the job and that he is an "excellent" choice.

Lawson is currently deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a job he's held since July 2011. His name was among those mentioned amid speculation about Natynczyk being replaced.

Working his way up the ranks

The outgoing top general has held the position since July 2008. It was widely expected that he would be replaced by the end of the summer. While there is no set time limit for serving in the role, the chief of defence staff generally holds the job for three to four years.

Lawson will be promoted to the rank of general because of his appointment.

He has been working his way up the ranks of the military since graduating from the Royal Military College in 1979 with an engineering degree, and he has held several key leadership positions in his career. He was commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton in 2006 – the country's biggest air base – and then he was promoted to brigadier-general the following year, and also was commandant of RMC.

Lawson was promoted to major-general and became assistant chief of the air staff in 2009, then headed for NORAD two years later. 

He has spent time working in Baden, Germany, and Cold Lake, Alta., and also went to the United States Air Force staff college in Montgomery, Ala. 

Monday wasn't his first time in front of the national media, Lawson was often in the public eye often during Canada's mission in Libya, handling media questions at news conferences.