Mark Esper is a great pick for Secretary of Defense if…

President Trump’s announced intent to nominate Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to become the new Secretary of Defense (SecDef) is a welcome development if Congress can act quickly and in a bipartisan manner, and if Esper himself makes it clear that he’s shed his Army-centric views and fully embraces the joint service perspective any  SecDef must have.

Esper’s bio is an extraordinary one.  A graduate of West Point, he earned the coveted Ranger tab, served in the first Gulf War and was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge.  With a Master of Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctorate in Public Policy from George Washington University, his academic credentials are strong.  Esper also worked at a think tank, on Capitol Hill, and in the defense industry. Immediately prior to being appointed Secretary of the Army in 2017, he was Vice President for Government Relations at the Raytheon Company.

With the possible exception of holding elective office, Esper would have most of the boxes checked for the qualifications for a great SecDef.

Esper spoke  at last year’s Aspen Security Forum, and I thought he was impressive.  He’s an obviously very bright individual, and I also found him  quite personable.

During the Q and A  session we joshed about Army-Air Force rivalry, but I was able to ask him some serious questions.  Here’s a slightly edited transcript:

Charlie: You talk a lot about AI. And here we have last December, Google established AI research center in Beijing. More recently, as you probably know with [Project] Maven, an AI project that intended to help among other things, reduce civilian casualties, Google’s pulled out of it. So what if anything can we do about that, and what message would you have for the tech industry in supporting our national defense?

Mark Esper: Well I guess what I would say is this.  The United States military exists to defend the Constitution and our way of life. And all the freedoms that we enjoy. And one of those freedoms is the freedom to live in a market economy, to try your hand at building technology, whatever the case may be.

We give them the freedom to do that. So this is really about protecting American lives, protecting our country, and doing those types of things. And you know, that’s the message I would send. There’s nothing nefarious here if you will. But how do we leverage the technologies that are out there to help us again, continue to build this community of democracies out there?

To defend, again, our great country, our way of life. The freedoms that we enjoy. I will say, you know, so much is happening these days in the private sector. That’s one reason why, a major reason why we decided to stand up army future’s command, and put it in Austin, Texas. The ecosystem there of innovation, of entrepreneurialism, of high tech know-how is just exceptional. And we want to be there on the ground working side by side with them. And I think the ability to go into a center like that, a city like that, work side by side with tech companies, with tech entrepreneurs, will help address some of those issues, those concerns that they may have.

Charlie: Thank you. You should [have] come to Raleigh/Durham, but besides that, should we have some sort of [CFIUS] type process for companies that are choosing to establish research centers in artificial intelligence and other high technologies that are extreme value for future weapons when they want to put them in potentially adversary countries?

Mark Esper: I think that’s a good consideration that I know Congress is considering that now. And we leave it up to them to tease that one out.

I’m skeptical as whether or not an appeal to patriotism will be enough for some of the tech giants to help the U.S. military given the business advantages of being involved with the Chinese.  The concern is very real though: Breaking Defense reported last year that: “Despite its ethical objections to helping the Pentagon, Google indirectly and inadvertently assists the Chinese military, which has tentacles into the tech giant’s ventures in China, former deputy secretary of defense Robert Work said.”

In any event, the Aspen Forum summarized Esper’s presentation as follows:

The Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, discussed what he called a “strategic inflection point” for the Army. While being quick to reassure the forum that the US Army is ready to fight and win today’s wars against any adversary, Secretary Esper stated that it is undergoing what he describes as a “renaissance” to prepare for overmatching adversaries and winning future wars. He said the Army has established a clear vision for the renovation that is needed, and is creating carefully defined initiatives to move forward on implementation.

Key among the initiatives is the goal of a 500,000-person force that is mentally and physically exceptionally well trained to be “smart, innovative, and tough.” This force will have to work in a joint environment, in multi-domain warfare. He said, “It’s air, land, and sea. it’s cyberspace. It’s outer space and it’s across the electronic warfare spectrum.” In order to modernize the force over the next decade, Secretary Esper noted that previously, innovation responsibilities were spread throughout the various parts of the Army, which resulted in delays and even failures to bring some systems online in the past. He was adamant that he can’t let that happen again.

The newly established Army Futures Command is now a single source of accountability to improve requirements and systems development that will renovate the US Army. It will focus on six priorities: long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile & expeditionary Army network, air & missile defense capabilities, and soldier lethality. The US Army goals for the future are a framework of collaboration and joint responsibilities not often seen in previous strategic plans. The Army sees itself as either leading or supporting all other activities in all domains. 

Challenge – The need for speed in the confirmation process 

My friend, retired Lt Gen Dave Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute and one of the nation’s leading airpower experts, said in an article in Forbes that Esper is a “wise choice” as SecDef, but adds:

Lt. Gen Dave Deptula, USAF (Ret.)

“DOD must not be left hanging with an acting secretary. The next confirmed SECDEF–whoever that is–will have his work cut out for him. The skies have grown ominous for our nation’s security; China and Russia have spent the past three decades studying the U.S. way of war and building their militaries to counter U.S. joint force capabilities. Over this same time period, stretched by continuous war, the United States cut and weakened its military.”

“All the military services have been reduced in size and in their readiness to fight a peer competitor over the last quarter of a century. The U.S. Air Force is now operating the smallest, oldest, and least ready combat aircraft force it has ever fielded in its entire history.”

I could not agree more.  Similarly, CNN reported (June 25th) that a “record-long lack of permanent leadership at the Pentagon is starting to take a toll” explaining that:

An acting defense secretary lacks the political capital and internal confidence of a permanent one. The Senate confirmation vests a secretary with explicit and implicit powers — from the ability to recruit and set long-term policies in the Pentagon to the power to communicate authoritatively with foreign counterparts and members of Congress.

Further complicating the transition is how the Federal Vacancy Reform Act operates in this instance.  Essentially, Esper can served as the Acting SecDef until he is officially nominated, and then he must step aside until confirmed (this will make Navy Secretary Richard Spencer the Acting SecDef).  This means, as the Wall Street Journal said, the “Pentagon leadership will remain in flux over at least the next several weeks, at a time when the White House is contemplating a possible military conflict with Iran and in the midst of other national-security issues.”

Hopefully, the White House and the Senate will act rapidly and in a bipartisan manner.  The Constitutional process needs to work as designed, but only America’s enemies benefit if this becomes just another political football.

Challenge – The need to avoid the fact or perception of favoring the Army

Gen. Milley observes that with Army general Mark Milley expected to become the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and with Esper’s slated to become SecDef, there’s a “dramatically altered power landscape in the U.S. military, with Army leaders in charge of the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Department.” goes on to quote Brookings defense expert Michael O’Hanlon as saying:

“You will have both Milley and Esper, who have been teammates in the Army and now teammates at the top. And they have a very good working relationship and personal chemistry and that bodes well. Unless you are a person in the Air Force or Navy that feel like that is going to make them more effective at crowding you out or shunting you aside. But I don’t think that is the way that they work.”

I want to believe O’Hanlon is right, but both Esper and Milley need to be diligent about being scrupulously fair in their new positions.  They need to be unambiguously committed in word and deed to considering national security as a joint enterprise.  Any hint of Army-centric parochialism would create a real issue as confidence in the leadership is especially important right now.

In terms of his agenda, Esper’s first message as Acting Secretary of Defense said that DoD’s “priorities remain unchanged” and included this:

“I am proud of the great work our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Civilians do each and every day around the world. Stay focused on your mission, remain steadfast in your pursuit of excellence, and always do the right thing. Together, we will remain the most ready and capable military force in the world, which is what our Nation expects and deserves.”

These are certainly the right words by a man with a strong credentials for the job, but it is rather ironic that at a point in time when Air Force and Navy capabilities are paramount in confronting Iran, China, Russia, North Korea and even ISIS, DoD’s leadership is in the hands of two people from the Army.

Esper’s experience at Raytheon should give him an orientation to technologies key to the Air Force and the Navy, but only time will tell if his leadership (and that of the new Chairman) is truly as “joint” as the nation needs it to be.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, assess them, and decide for yourself!

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