Disagreement over Tata Could Stymie Air Force Leader’s Confirmation

Democratic senators on Aug. 4 indicated they could hold up the confirmation of Shon J. Manasco as Air Force undersecretary as recourse for the Trump administration’s decision to install a controversial official into a key Pentagon policy post without Senate approval.

Anthony J. Tata, a retired Army brigadier general, is performing the duties of deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. His July 30 Senate confirmation hearing was abruptly canceled, just hours before he was supposed to appear, amid bipartisan concerns about his fitness for the job. He has served as a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper since April.

Tata now works for James H. Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy. Anderson was confirmed as the policymaking deputy—the job Tata now holds—in June. But Anderson is instead acting as a placeholder in the top policy job because no one has been confirmed as his boss, opening the lower post for Tata.

The nominee has called former President Barack H. Obama a “terrorist leader” and made disparaging remarks about Islam.

Giving Tata the job anyway has sparked the ire of congressional Democrats, including those with the power to hold up the confirmation process for defense officials. 

“The committee should carefully consider an appropriate response to this end-run around our rules and our constitutional prerogatives,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Aug. 4.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he is “disinclined” to support any Pentagon nominee that comes before the Senate, and “will almost certainly oppose nominees unless something is done to correct this situation.”

“Almost certainly, [Tata] would have been rejected by this committee after our review, meticulously, of his record,” Blumenthal said. “He was unfit to serve. He is unqualified for the position where he is now serving. … We must take action.”

Meanwhile, Committee Chairman Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) argues President Donald J. Trump has the authority to appoint DOD officials into critical positions.

“There are many Democrats and Republicans who didn’t know enough about Anthony Tata to consider him for a very significant position at this time,” Inhofe said in a July 30 release. “We didn’t get the required documentation in time; some documents, which we normally get before a hearing, didn’t arrive until yesterday. As I told the President last night, we’re simply out of time with the August recess coming, so it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to have a hearing at this point, and he agreed.”

That standoff loomed over an Aug. 4 confirmation hearing that vetted Manasco to be the Air Force’s No. 2 civilian official, John E. Whitley to lead the Pentagon’s independent cost projections office, Michele A. Pearce to be the Army’s next general counsel, and Liam P. Hardy to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Manasco is nominated to formally hold the undersecretary post after unofficially serving in the role since December 2019. He previously worked as assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.

During the hearing, Manasco indicated there’s no need to change the service’s safety standards following a recent spate of aircraft crashes.

“What I would want to continue to reinforce is just steadfastness, discipline, and never, ever bending as it relates to the safety standards,” he said. “I do believe we have the right safety standards. We have to refocus our efforts on being disciplined about following them.”

Five Air Force fighter jets have crashed since mid-May, prompting the head of Air Combat Command to visit Airmen around the country to discuss safety and training. ACC is “assessing current and historical data and looking for common trends or issues,” and has updated its safety information, but did not pause flying operations, according to a command spokeswoman.

Fifteen aircraft suffered the most costly and destructive kind of mishaps in fiscal 2019, known as “Class A” incidents, according to the Air Force. Another 27 incurred lesser damage in “Class B” mishaps that year.

Manasco acknowledged the Air Force may have to do more to fight military ships, as the Pentagon focuses on potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific. That could mean growing the Air Force’s share of the Navy-led Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile program, and possibly cutting back on other types of munitions. The service may buy up to 400 LRASMs, compared to as many as 10,000 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and other far-reaching munitions.

“Especially with the Chinese and their growing fleet, we’re going to have to take that threat more seriously than maybe we have in the past, and as we do that, I would anticipate we will have to look carefully at our munitions inventory to make sure that we can meet that threat in the event that we need to,” Manasco said.

He backed the Air Force’s negotiations with Lockheed Martin to drive down sustainment costs and to own more of the technical data for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, hoping to get more control over platform upgrades.

“At the same time, we can really begin to tap into a broader set of suppliers that can help us create some competition to be able to lower those costs down,” he said.

He also promised Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) he would brief her on the future of the Air Force’s tactical airlift fleet within the next year.

Manasco will help oversee the Air Force’s policy shifts as the service tries to tackle racism in its ranks as well. The service is reviewing issues of discrimination in its military justice system and promotion process, among other changes to make the Air Force more equitable.

“Racism of any form has no place in the Department of the Air Force, period,” he said. “If confirmed, I will work diligently to make sure that it is eradicated from our ranks, as this is a scourge on our society and there’s simply no place for it.”

The committee must vote to send Manasco’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration.