President Trump has a big decision to make. Who should be our next Secretary of Defense?
Let’s be clear. This president inherited the most complex national security and foreign policy situation a U.S. Commander-in-Chief has ever faced. When you consider that he also inherited a military readiness crisis, you get a sense of the challenges he faced at the beginning of his presidency. In these first two years, President Trump has performed well from a national security standpoint. The increasing complexity of the national security landscape, coupled with the readiness challenge that still remains, underscores that the appointment of the right Secretary of Defense will be President Trump’s most important appointment for the remainder of his first term.
Patrick Shanahan, has been serving as the “Acting” Secretary of Defense since former Secretary Jim Mattis’ departure. Regardless of whether the president decides to nominate Shanahan or one of the other names that has been mentioned, there are a number of guiding principles that should help ensure America has the best Secretary of Defense during these historically critical times:
- Management Skills—With a workforce of 718,000 civilians, 1.4 million active duty personnel, and 1.1 million Reserve and National Guard members, our Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) must be an effective manager and CEO. He or she must have significant knowledge of the force so that they are not co-opted by institutional bureaucrats. Our Secretary of Defense must know where the bodies are buried, the right questions to ask and when to call BS.
- Readiness—Our readiness challenge remains, and our SECDEF must understand that. Recruiting is a big part. How we recruit a young soldier, sailor, or airman today is far different from the 1990s. Our recruitment campaigns must reflect that, and we must do a better job of reaching potential recruits on the social media platforms they utilize.
- China—Our SECDEF must understand the real threat that China poses to our national security from both a quantum computing and artificial intelligence standpoint. He or she must also understand that what happens in the South China Sea affects our vital interests. We must engage old friends and seek new allies in the Pacific Rim.
- Acquisition—President Trump did a great job in significantly reducing costs for the American taxpayer on the F-35 stealth fighter. However, the president can’t be personally involved in every major acquisition decision. The SECDEF, though, can put the right kind of mechanisms in place that are designed to achieve the same result for the taxpayer. Giving program managers more authority over cost overruns, and giving the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB), which includes all service secretaries, more responsibility with a “buck stops here” culture, is a good place to start. The DAB should be engaged with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the outset of major procurements.
- Technology—Technology is changing faster than the Pentagon’s ability to adapt and respond. We must do better at getting new technologies on contract and making the necessary reforms of the contracting process to facilitate this. Ingenuity and innovation are hallmarks of American small business. Engaging small business and harnessing their latest technologies must be a priority.
- Cybersecurity—Our SECDEF must realize that cybersecurity poses the most complex national security threat America has ever faced. After air, land, sea, and space, it is the fifth dimension of warfare. Whoever wins the quantum race will win the cyber war. Losing this race is not an option.
- A Sense of History—Our Secretary of Defense must appreciate what it means to be an American. Education is a national security issue. President Reagan said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. Having a sense of history enables our SECDEF to have a connection with our young recruits who get it and want to carry on a proud tradition.
- Connection to the Military—It is not necessary to have a SECDEF who has worn the uniform, but it sure helps. It gives the Secretary of Defense an appreciation of military culture. It also ensures that the SECDEF grasps what a young recruit is going through in basic training or later when he or she is deployed and their family is back home and dependent on the military health system.
- Bipartisanship—It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there are no Democrats or Republicans in foxholes either—only Americans. Our next SECDEF must work closely with the various congressional oversight committees where there has long existed a sense of bipartisanship in doing what is right for America.
- Committing Troops—It is important that our Secretary of Defense understand that U.S. troops are committed only when there is a vital national security interest at stake and the mission is clearly defined. In order to support President Trump, our SECDEF should also realize that there must be a third component—an exit strategy when the mission is accomplished.
Over the years America has been blessed with having a strong and effective Secretary of Defense. It is one of our nation’s most important and difficult jobs. With ever increasing and challenging national security threats, it is vital that we get it right and once again have a strong, tough, knowledgeable, and effective Secretary of Defense. President Reagan said, “Personnel is policy.” Using these guidelines, President Trump can help ensure he has the right Secretary of Defense to effectuate his policies and keep America safe.