Senate confirms Esper as new Defense secretary

With conflict increasing between the U.S. and Iran, Mark Esper's confirmation brings some order to a seven-month round of musical chairs among the Defense Department's top leadership.

The Senate confirmed Mark Esper, previously secretary of the Army, to be the new Defense secretary in a 90-8 vote on July 23.

With conflict increasing between the U.S. and Iran, Esper's confirmation brings some order to a seven-month round of musical chairs among the Defense Department's top leadership. He is expected to be sworn in later in the day.

Twenty defense and military leadership positions are currently vacant or temporarily held by acting officials. DOD has lacked a permanent secretary since Jim Mattis resigned on Jan. 1.

Esper was secretary of the Army until Patrick Shanahan, who became acting Defense secretary on Jan. 1, stepped down a month ago and withdrew his nomination for the full-time position. David Norquist, the Pentagon's comptroller, has been performing deputy Defense secretary duties since Jan. 1 and is expected to be nominated for the full-time position.

Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of Defense for public affairs, told reporters today that Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who has been acting Defense secretary since July 15, will perform deputy Defense secretary duties pending Norquist's confirmation. Ryan McCarthy, Army undersecretary, is now performing service secretary duties and is expected to be nominated for Army secretary.

This shuffle may not affect daily operations but could hinder large reform efforts if it continues. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program, told FCW that although Esper has worked with many of the acting leaders in the Pentagon, any policy reform process requires steady civilian leadership. 

As Army Secretary, Esper championed the "night court," a zero-based budgeting approach where every new dollar spent or requested had to be justified via a lengthy process to find existing money that could be repurposed. Cancian said many expect that Esper, a former Raytheon executive, will bring a similar process to the Pentagon to free up money for high-priority programs that focus on threats from China and Russia, although Cancian warned the process could stall without permanent leadership.

In answers to advance policy questions for his nomination hearing, Esper promised to "drive consolidation and reduce duplication through review of fourth-estate organizations" and key performance metrics.

In the opening statement for his confirmation hearing, he said: "We will reform the department, beginning with the fourth estate. No reform is too small. In the Army, we found billions of dollars in savings by overturning hundreds of small stones that many said wouldn't make a difference. We must actively seek ways to free up time, money and manpower to invest back into our top priorities."

The White House and Congress tentatively struck a two-year budget deal on July 22 that would allot $738 billion for DOD in fiscal 2020 and $740.5 billion in fiscal 2021 -- a $5 billion bump over the House-passed defense authorization bill for fiscal 2020 and about $10 billion less than the Senate's version. Republicans had criticized the House-passed bill for not going far enough to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy. House and Senate leaders have struck a two-year budget agreement with the White House, but Congress still has to vote on its passage.

"Assuming that [budget] goes through," Cancian said, "it's a good deal lower than what DOD was expecting." That means Esper could have to offset billions more than anticipated.

However, Arnold Punaro, an independent consultant, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former director of the Marine Corps Reserve, argued that the budget deal figures were in the realm DOD has been discussing for years and won't have a significant impact. But reforming the fourth-estate agencies, such as the Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency, would have an impact.

Esper has "put a pretty big challenge on the fourth estate," Punaro said. "I think there's going to be real pressure for these people who are responsible to lead these agencies to be efficient and save money."

Experts agree Esper is likely to shine where his predecessors didn't: on the Hill. As Punaro put it: "Senior defense leaders who have an ability to work with the Congress tend to get a better result because Congress has the final say on the budget."

This article first appeared on FCW, a sibling site to Defense Systems.

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