Politics

Vice-Admiral Art McDonald named new chief of the defence staff

Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, the current head of the navy, has been named Canada's chief of the defence staff. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement during an address Wednesday afternoon.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment at 1 p.m. ET

Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, pictured following a recent interview, has been appointed as Canada's new chief of defence. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The country's next top military commander will come from the navy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Vice Admiral Art McDonald as the new chief of the defence staff (CDS) on Wednesday, replacing Gen. Jonathan Vance, who announced his retirement last summer.

McDonald is currently the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy and, within the defence community, has been considered the leading candidate for the post for weeks.  

His appointment was reported earlier in the day by CBC News.

A former frigate captain and Pacific fleet commander, McDonald has been intimately involved in the planning of the navy's new combat fleet for a number of years.

Vaccine rollout help among first tasks

He is the first naval officer to hold the defence chief's post in more than two decades.

The last sailor in that job was Vice-Admiral Larry Murray, who was only appointed on an acting basis amid the fallout of the Somalia scandal in the mid-1990s.

In his remarks, Trudeau underlined the important role the military has played in the federal government's response to the global pandemic.

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"In his new role as Chief, Vice-Admiral McDonald will oversee the work of the Canadian Armed Forces, including on vaccine rollout through Operation Vector," the prime minister said.

"McDonald's leadership and expertise will be invaluable as the Armed Forces continue to work around the clock to keep Canadians safe."

McDonald inherits tough files

A change of command ceremony will take place in the new year, at which time McDonald will be promoted to full admiral.

Aside from managing the ongoing fallout of coronavirus both at home and abroad, McDonald will inherit a number of tough files, including the military's ongoing efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct within the ranks, as well as a rising campaign to deal with extremism among military members.

He will also face heightened scrutiny on some of the biggest military purchases in a generation, worth tens of billions of dollars, including new fighter jets and the construction of 15 new frigates.

Both the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer will weigh in on the new frigate program in the New Year and McDonald will be called upon to defend some of the decisions that have been made.

Trudeau expressed his gratitude to Vance for his more than five years of leadership as defence chief, a tenure that makes the general the longest serving defence chief in modern history.

Strategic choice

A defence expert at the Royal Military College of Canada said Wednesday the choice of McDonald may prove to be crucial in the coming debate about the new frigates, which are expected to cost over $60 billion to build and perhaps as much as another $150 billion to operate and maintain in the coming decades.

"The navy doesn't usually make CDS," said Christian Leuprecht, who also teaches at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "This was a very strategic choice. It also signals the government's commitment to the navy and the [Canadian Surface Combatant]."

Beyond the pandemic and domestic institutional considerations, McDonald brings a different geo-political perspective to the table because of his time as Pacific fleet commander, said retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who finished his career as the vice chief of the defence staff under Vance.

Former vice chief of the defence staff Guy Thibault, seen here in 2015, says McDonald's selection is 'a very strategic choice' and may be significant in a coming debate over new frigates. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"The focus on Asia-Pacific is very important and one of the key differences that Art [McDonald] brings when compared with any other potential candidates we would have had," said Thibault, who is now chairman of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. 

"I think that will be useful for the Forces going forward."

In addition, Thibault said he believes the new defence chief will bring a unique perspective to the relationship with the U.S., Canada's most important defence partner.

The countries are in the midst of renewing NORAD, the joint aerospace defence command, and all of its associated capabilities. 

"There are a couple of big files that the government's defence policy kind of kicked down the road a bit, and one of those is the not-so-insignificant challenge of continental defence," said Thibault.

"Moving forward on continental defence will be an important challenge for him."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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