The transition period of a new administration can be particularly challenging for new appointees at the Department of Defense (DoD). The FY2022 defense budget, written by the Trump administration, needs to be reviewed. Work needs to be initiated on the one after that. Incoming administrations routinely initiate a major review of overall defense policy, as well as internal assessments of major program areas such as nuclear weapons modernization, shipbuilding, cyber and tactical aviation. This is also the time to review major acquisition programs.
If that were not enough to impose on the new residents of the Pentagon’s fabled E Ring, the building’s outermost corridor, there are the growing number of new challenges and potential crisis situations which they confronted from their first day in the Department of Defense. There is the intensifying great power competition with Russia and China. The U.S. intelligence community predicts that by 2040 China will surpass the U.S. economically and become a great power peer.
One dimension of this competition is a growing arms race. China and Russia are both in the midst of a full-fledged nuclear modernization. The U.S., by comparison, is just getting started with its Minuteman ICBM replacement, the B-21 bomber, and the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. China is acquiring modern military capabilities at a particularly alarming and accelerating rate. It now has the world’s largest navy, as well as a well-armed coast guard and a vast fleet of armed militia ships. Both great power challengers are investing in new technologies such as hypersonic weapons, directed energy, anti-satellite systems, artificial intelligence and cyber.
Possibly even more of a problem for the Pentagon’s new leadership are so-called grey area activities below the threshold of overt conflict conducted by Russia, China, and other U.S. adversaries. Where possible, these countries use non-traditional and even non-attributable means, such as cyberattacks, to achieve their objectives. These states have perfected the application of whole-of-government capabilities to attain strategic ends. Too often, Washington relies on military forces to counter more agile and subtle means employed by the other side.
Finally, there is the real possibility that one of these adversaries might seek to test the new administration’s competence and resolve by engaging in overt military actions. Over the past ten days, there have been alarming reports of a large Russian military buildup on its border with Ukraine. Russian bombers have conducted numerous penetrations of U.S. and NATO airspace. China has been making similarly belligerent moves with its Air Force and Navy in the airspace and waters around Taiwan. Cyber penetrations of critical infrastructure could result in unintended consequences or be interpreted as the opening round in a surprise attack. Whether by mistake or with intent, these actions could result in war.
Then there are the normal, day-to-day problems running the DoD. The Pentagon is a massive bureaucracy that spends close to three quarters of a trillion dollars a year. It is not known for rapid change. It is routine to operate equipment that is a half a century old. Even with new acquisition authorities and clever approaches such as digital design, it still takes decades to develop, produce and deploy major new weapons systems. The Pentagon leadership must also deal with Congress, which at times tends to act like it runs the DoD.
These challenges would be enough to completely occupy a fully staffed and well-integrated Pentagon. But at present, there are only handful of Senate confirmed individuals running the DoD. A larger number of political appointees are occupying offices in the Pentagon, but it is not clear where they will permanently reside.
When it comes to staffing the top jobs at the DoD, unlike other cabinet departments, the Biden administration appears to have gone with competence and experience. Despite the controversy regarding the appointment of a former military officer to the position of Secretary of Defense, General Lloyd Austin, USA (Ret.) has, by all accounts, the temperament, experience, and managerial style to make him a worthy appointee to that high office. As one long-time analyst of the U.S. Army observed: “There are very few people I can think of who are more competent than Lloyd Austin. And if there’s one thing we need in a secretary of defense, it’s competence.”
Backing up Secretary Austin and the person responsible for the day-today operation of the Pentagon is Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. Unlike Secretary Austin, who has had only limited experience in Washington, Dr. Hicks has a wealth of experience in Washington, particularly in the DoD. From 1993 to 2006 she served in positions of increasing importance for both Democrat and Republican administrations. During the Obama administration she was first the deputy Undersecretary of Defense for strategy, plans and force; then she served as principal deputy Undersecretary of Defense for policy. In her previous Pentagon positions, Dr. Hicks worked closely with other federal departments and the relevant committees of Congress.
The Deputy Secretary has spent years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) examining the key issues facing the department. Two of the most important of these are reforming DoD’s business practices and modernizing the force. In her confirmation hearings, Dr. Hicks spoke about the need to engage industry through public-private partnerships to pursue advances in areas such as hypersonics and quantum computing. It is also significant that the Deputy Secretary made clear her commitment to modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.
The records of other recent Pentagon nominees also support the thesis that President Biden prizes competence over ideology when it comes to managing the largest and most important department of the federal government. Newly nominated to take the important position of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment is Michael Brown. Mr. Brown currently serves as the Director of the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon office tasked to bring commercial technologies to the Pentagon. He was formerly the CEO of cyber-security giant Symantec.
A final example of the administration’s penchant for choosing individuals with ideal experience is Doug Bush, recently sworn in as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology). Bush is familiar with every aspect of Army technology/acquisition for a decade. Well-known and respected by Army uniformed leadership, Members of Congress and the defense think tanks in D.C., he, like the others discussed above, will be able to hit the ground running.
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