We study the instability of a laminar vortex column (in an external orthogonal strain field) to an axisymmetric core size perturbation, and the resulting transition to fine-scale turbulence. The perturbation, which evolves as a standing wave oscillation (i.e. core dynamics, CD), is inviscidly amplified by the external strain. Analysis of a weakly strained Rankine vortex explains the physical mechanism of instability: resonant interaction between the perturbation-the azimuthal wavenumber m = O wave-and m = ±2 waves. The CD instability (CDI) - a type of elliptic instability - experiences the fastest growth when the CD oscillation frequency equals vortex column's fluid angular velocity, such matching occuring only at specific discrete values of the axial wavenumber k. At this resonant frequency, the net effect of the swirl-induced tilting of perturbation vorticity and the CD-induced tilting of base flow vorticity is such that perturbation vorticity is continually aligned with the stretching direction of the external strain. Such strain-vorticity locking occurs for all m; hence all waves are unstable, the instability oscillation frequency being dependent on m. In a viscous Gaussian-like vortex, CDI has low-strain, low-Re and high-k cutoffs-consequences of the competing effects of inviscid amplification and viscous damping. Direct numerical simulation reveals two physical-space mechanisms of transition: (i) formation of a thin annular vortex sheath surrounding a low-enstrophy 'bubble' (similar to axisymmetric vortex breakdown) and the sheath's subsequent roll-up into smaller 'vortexlets'; and (ii) folding and reconnection of core vortex filaments giving rise to additional fine- grained random vorticity within the bubble-both mechanisms caused by CD-induced intense axial flow within the vortex column. The resulting finer tubular vortices (similar to 'worms') have in turn their own CD, and thus this transition scenario suggests a physical-space cascade process in developed turbulence (as well as a concomitant anti-cascade process during the bubble's collapse phase). Additionally, we show that bending waves, in spite of their faster growth, effect surprisingly much slower transfer of energy into fine scales than CDI does, and hence are less effective than CDI in vortex transition and in turbulence cascade.