Strategy & Policy

July 1, 2019

Photos: DOD (1,9) ; Monica King/USA (2,4,7); State Department; Sgt. Amber Smith/USA; USAF; Sun Vega/DOD; Andy Morataya/USAF; USA (11,12)

Amid major challenges, such as a septic military confrontation with Iran, continuing congressional debate over creating a new Space Force, and US steps to eject Turkey from the F-35 program over that country’s insistence on buying a Russian air-defense system, the Pentagon leadership was substantially reshuffled in June. The result is a slate of fresh players stepping in when these issues were all clearly far short of resolution.

Starting at the top, Patrick M. Shanahan, who in May was nominated by President Donald J. Trump to be Secretary of Defense—after half a year in an “acting” capacity—abruptly withdrew his nomination in mid-June and resigned as deputy after news surfaced about domestic violence charges involving his ex-wife and one of his children.

Mark T. Esper, Secretary of the Army, was nominated to be Defense Secretary, after assuming the duties of “acting” defense chief.

Throughout his tenure as deputy and then as Acting Defense Secretary, Shanahan’s 30-year career at Boeing compelled him to recuse himself from Pentagon decisions affecting that company. Boeing’s win of a string of big-ticket contracts during Shanahan’s term—as well as the inclusion of Boeing F-15EX fighters in the 2020 defense budget request, despite Air Force resistance—cast a shadow on his impartiality.

Shanahan was the longest-serving Acting Defense Secretary in history. Taking over from Jim Mattis in January, he eclipsed the 60-day tenure of William Howard Taft IV in acting status by March 1, but that status continued until his sudden departure in late June.

The lack of a permanent, confirmed Secretary increasingly agitated lawmakers, especially given the US’ involvement in armed conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, engagement in a tense military showdown with Iran, and fraught negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Senate Armed Services Chair Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) suggested in early June that the long delay in Shanahan’s nomination was beginning to smack of a lack of confidence. “You need Senate-confirmed people of ability and competence in leadership,” said Sen. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) on June 26. “You can’t have a government of actings or vacant offices, and that’s sadly what we increasingly have. And our tolerance for that should be zero.”


Shanahan came to the Pentagon with no uniformed military experience, but Esper is a combat veteran. A 1986 West Point graduate, Esper was an infantry leader in the 1991 Gulf War, served in the Army Reserve and National Guard, and later worked on Capitol Hill as a military matters staffer supporting members such as former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. He also worked military issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and later as a lobbyist for Raytheon, where he was vice president for government relations.

Promising that Esper “is going to be outstanding, and we look forward to working with him for a long time to come,” President Trump nominated him formally June 21.

While Shanahan was legally able to fill in as SecDef because he was already the deputy, under the 1998 Vacancies Reform Act, Esper’s nomination precluded him from acting as SecDef until he is confirmed, and he was obliged to resign as Army Secretary.

Esper faces a similar conflict-of-interest problem with Raytheon as Shanahan’s with Boeing. Like Shanahan, he may have to recuse himself from Pentagon decisions involving his former employer. Not only was Esper heavily involved with one of Raytheon’s signature products—the Patriot air defense system—but Raytheon is also now seeking Pentagon approval to merge with United Technologies Corp.; a green light would make the new company the nation’s second-largest defense contractor.

Shanahan was no fan of meeting with the press, but Esper, as Army Secretary, made it a point to engage with the media at least quarterly and issued orders to Army public affairs that he wanted media inquiries handled swiftly—especially when they were about bad news. “Delay breeds suspicions,” he said.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill praised Esper’s nomination. “I think he’s good,” Inhofe remarked. “I’ve been in the field with him to see how he does with the troops. He does an exceptionally good job.”

Esper was a West Point classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and will bring an undoubtedly Army-centric perspective to his new post. Meanwhile, the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is about to shift as well, also to the Army.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley will succeed Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. in the fall. A Princeton graduate who has been Army Chief of Staff since 2015, Milley will be succeeded by Army Vice Chief Gen. James C. McConville. Ryan McCarthy, who had been undersecretary, will be nominated to succeed Esper and is Acting Army Secretary for now, the White House said.

The White House said David Norquist, the Pentagon’s Comptroller and acting Deputy Defense Secretary since Mattis departed, would soon be nominated to permanently fill the deputy position. No backfill for Norquist had been announced as of this writing, however.


The Air Force, which hasn’t held the chairmanship of the JCS since Gen. Richard B. Myers had the job from 2001-2005­—the longest any service has gone without taking the JCS chair—will continue its hold on the Vice Chairman’s job. The Vice Chairman leads the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, or JROC, a critical oversight role with regard to major acquisition programs. Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten will succeed Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva in that role, likely before the end of the year.

Hyten, a Harvard graduate now head of US Strategic Command, has been an outspoken champion of space. Deeply experienced in space operations, he was previously head of USAF Space Command and has been supportive of the plan to create a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force for the time being. He testified in February, however, that he believes Space Force should eventually become a separate, sixth service.

As head of JROC, Hyten will supervise the joint-service operational requirements process, seeking consensus from the Joint Chiefs on acquisition priorities and advising the Defense Secretary on adjudicating intraservice conflicts.


In addition to Shanahan, the Pentagon’s space architect, Fred G. Kennedy, also stepped down in June after only a few months on the job. Kennedy had been director of the Space Development Agency, “on detail from DARPA,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb. She said June 21 that Kennedy would go back to DARPA.

John Stopher, space adviser to the Secretary of the Air Force, also announced plans to step down July 19.

Derek M. Tournear, assistant director for Space within the Pentagon’s research and engineering undersecretariat, became the Acting Director of SDA three days later, and Babb said he would be dual-hatted; keeping his old job while also heading SDA. Tournear managed space systems at Harris Corp., served as a program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency and DARPA, and also worked at the Los Alamos Labs. “There is no change to the mission or activities” of SDA, Babb told Space News, adding the agency will “drive the Department’s future threat-driven space architecture and will accelerate the development and fielding of the new military space capabilities necessary to ensure our technological and military advantage.”

Kennedy had only been in the job since March, but ran into conflicts with Michael D. Griffin, the Pentagon’s head of research and engineering. Kennedy had been brought over from DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, where he worked in space systems research and management, and his initial charter was to spearhead an effort to launch hundreds of small satellites to establish resilient constellations in missile defense and communications. Kennedy’s position was getting wan support from other space factions that felt SDA was redundant to missions already performed by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. Griffin pushed for the creation of SDA, which was also championed by Shanahan. Kennedy’s charter now becomes Tournear’s.

Separately, Griffin also moved to sweep other areas, as well. In June, he fired Strategic Capabilities Office Director Chris Shank and moved to put the SCO under DARPA. Ranking House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) questioned that move and included language in the panel’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Bill seeking further study. SCO specializes in quickly putting new gear in operator hands, advancing projects from requirement to the field in under two years. DARPA, on the other hand, focuses on long-term strategic research.

Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition chief, was the prior SCO director and has said its best work stems from adapting existing capabilities for new missions not originally intended. Indo-European Command, European Command, and the Joint Staff challenged Griffin’s decision, saying the SCO fills a crucial function not easily duplicated at DARPA. Selva told reporters in June he was concerned that the COCOMs needed to have access to SCO’s ability to deliver quickly on urgent needs.


During the long debate on Space Force, the Air Force’s position was well articulated by former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose departure on May 31 (to take a new job as a university president) left Undersecretary Matthew P. Donovan as the Acting Secretary. The White House announced May 21 it would nominate Ambassador Barbara Barrett—a lawyer, banker, and rancher—to succeed Wilson. If formally nominated—it had not been relayed to Capitol Hill by late June—it would be her second try for the job.

Barrett served as Ambassador to Finland late in the George W. Bush administration and as head of the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board under President Ronald Reagan. She has served on numerous advisory panels to the Pentagon, including the Defense Advisory Committee on Women In the Services, or DACOWITS, and on the boards of numerous aviation- or military-oriented organizations and companies, such as Raytheon, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and RAND, and was chairman of the nonprofit Aerospace Corp.

Barrett is a private pilot with a multi-engine rating who also has great interest in space, having gone to Star City in Russia to prepare for a tourist trip to the International Space Station. If confirmed, she would be the third woman in a row and the fourth woman to serve as Secretary of the Air Force.

Barrett was nominated to be Air Force Secretary in 2004, and was intended to succeed James G. Roche in that capacity when Roche was nominated to move over to be Secretary of the Army. Roche’s nomination was indefinitely held up, however, by the Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), who objected to Roche’s planned attempt to lease air refueling tankers from Boeing. After months of delay, Roche withdrew his nomination and stayed on in the Air Force post, and Barrett’s name was withdrawn.

The White House’s desire to add momentum toward Space Force as a separate service was surely an important factor in the nomination of space enthusiast Barrett. The administration had expressed frustration with Wilson’s highlighting of the cost and limited value-added of a Space Force at this particular time, and Barrett, if nominated, would likely champion the move with greater gusto.