Ever so gradually, the Trump administration’s Pentagon team is continuing to take shape. This week, the Senate voted to confirm Patrick Shanahan as deputy secretary of Defense, the White House made picks for a new Army secretary and a key undersecretary of Defense position, and four additional Pentagon nominees went to Capitol Hill for their confirmation hearings.
Although his confirmation process got off to a somewhat rocky start, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) chastising him for being insufficiently specific in his answers to policy questions, Shanahan, a former senior Boeing executive, gained Senate approval by a 92-7 vote on Tuesday.
The vote clears the way for Shanahan to assume the number-two Defense job right away, replacing Robert Work, the last deputy secretary of the Obama administration who agreed to stay on until the Trump administration found a permanent replacement.
On Wednesday evening, the White House announced that the president intends to nominate Mark Esper, currently the top lobbyist at Raytheon, to be Army secretary following the withdrawal of two previous nominees.
And earlier in the day, the White House formally nominated Joseph Kernan to be the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence. Kernan is a retired Navy special operations officer who is now a senior vice president at SAP National Security Services, a U.S.-based arm of the company that focuses primarily on federal government contracts, and his confirmation would continue to fill out the top rungs of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ leadership team in what’s remained an unusually slow nomination process for an incoming administration.
Overall, 30 of the 53 Defense positions that require Senate confirmation are still awaiting a presidential nomination, according to a political appointments database maintained by the Partnership for Public Service, and there are still no nominees for two of the five undersecretary positions: the undersecretary for policy, and the undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
But on Tuesday, the Senate began the confirmation process for Ellen Lord, the president’s nominee to be undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. She is currently the CEO of Textron Systems.
In her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, she emphasized what she said is a need for the Defense Department to adopt “80 percent” solutions to solve its technology and modernization challenges, including by making more use of rapid prototyping and alternative acquisition approaches such as the ones used by the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx).
“I think we need to make far more use of commercial technology, and I think the Congress has provided many authorities to the Department of Defense over the last couple of years that can be more widely utilized,” she said. “If confirmed, that will be a huge focus of mine: to make sure we take advantage of the opportunities to bring in subject matter experts, to use special funds that have been set aside to make sure that commercial hardware and software is procured. … We don’t need the traditional long requirements process for many of the capabilities the warfighter needs. I think using more of [the Strategic Capabilities Office], DIUx, the different rapid fielding, I think we have enough authorities to do it. We just need to implement.”
Lord also pledged to empower the Defense acquisition workforce, including by delegating more authority to program managers and delivering more training to rank-and-file members of the acquisition community.
“I believe there’s enormous opportunity to train the acquisition workforce, and that would be something I would spend time on,” she said. “We have a lot of authorities, a lot of ability to do things today that frankly just aren’t being utilized and it’s not because there aren’t very good people in the acquisition workforce. I believe that there just has not been sufficient training. There are a number of very skilled program managers out there. There are a lot of very good contracting officers. If confirmed, I would take those people who have demonstrated a great ability to be agile and embrace the new authorities and have them train others.”
The position Lord’s been nominated for is unique in that, under current law, it will cease to exist next February. The Defense Department is under a legislative mandate to divide the current AT&L organization into two offices overseen by two undersecretaries — one for research and engineering, and one for acquisition and sustainment. If she’s confirmed, Lord is expected to transition into the latter position when it comes into effect next year.
In the meantime, however, she pledged to prioritize research and development as long as it remains within her purview.
“I believe delivering innovation to the warfighter is absolutely critical to our national security,” she said. “If confirmed, I’ll review what we’re doing in basic research and make sure that we are dealing with the entire spectrum of development.”
During the same relatively brief hearing, the committee heard from three other Defense nominees — John Gibson, the prospective deputy chief management officer; Matthew Donovan, the nominee for undersecretary of the Air Force; and Lucian Niemeyer, the nominee to be assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment.
In his testimony, Neimeyer, a former senior Senate staffer-turned-independent-consultant, said his highest priority was to address the underfunding of maintenance on military installations, and also made the case for one of the most unpopular topics on Capitol Hill: the need for another round of base realignments and closures.
“I know the history of BRAC and congressional concerns regarding irreversible decisions, high costs, and mixed results,” he said. “BRAC decisions must be based on a sound security strategy and force structure to meet global challenges. The department is committed to providing an updated national defense strategy in the near term that will define military value in the BRAC analysis. Conducting a BRAC at a time of military growth may seem counterintuitive, but now is the time to authorize a round. By 2021, force growth projections will be factored into the analysis to make prudent strategic decisions about basing.”
Gibson, a former aerospace executive, is also being nominated for a job that’s slated for changes next year, when DoD creates the new position of chief management officer.
In the meantime, as deputy chief management officer (DCMO), he said he would work to improve DoD’s access to timely and accurate information about its business operations, including by preparing the department for its first-ever financial audit.
“It’s essential to good business decisions in all areas,” he said. “I can tell you that supporting the audit with [DoD Comptroller David] Norquist will be a priority, specifically because this particular office is a co-owner of that process because it owns the information systems. We would partner together to make this happen. As we begin this process, we will begin to discover weaknesses and there will be weaknesses that are relevant to the office of the DCMO. I think it’s critical that we immediately devise corrective actions and begin to work on those.”
Donovan, another former staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a retired Air Force officer, told the committee he would work to deal with the Air Force’s current readiness deficits, including by addressing a critical shortfall of fighter pilots.
“If pilots aren’t able to fly, then they’re going to go somewhere where they can. And they’re certainly voting with their feet,” he said. “I think it has to do with the capacity of the Air Force. It’s so low that it’s not able to ride out the perfect storm that’s occurring, where the airlines are hiring at much higher rates than we’ve seen in the past and there’s no end in sight. Also in the past, the Air Force was much larger, and it could ride out those periods of hiring which have, in the past, been cyclic by the major airlines. And then, you combine that with the very high operations tempo rates that are occurring right now and especially for the Air Force in the fights occurring over in the Middle East. I think all those things coming together are causing us to have to take a look at new ways of keeping the pilots that we do have.”