One of the greatest misconceptions that civilians have about the U.S. Secretary of Defense is the belief that his primary task is that of an administrator. Wrong. In fact, the secretary’s job is that of a strategist. The role of administrator falls to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.
The Secretary of Defense needs to understand intuitively the way that the world works and America’s role within it. More important, he must understand the U.S. military’s contribution to that role. So the Secretary of Defense is not simply a glorified bean counter. The role of his deputy, however, is to manage the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy on behalf of the secretary in order to accomplish the secretary and the president’s directives.
General Jim Mattis, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Secretary of Defense, is not only a strategist, but as his testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday showed, he is well-equipped to deal with these detail-oriented bureaucratic issues. But the incoming Secretary of Defense should not be bogged down by bureaucratic minutiae. His primary concern should be ensuring that America’s warfighting capabilities remain unmatched.
The next Secretary of Defense will also need to provide President Trump with timely, reliable, and realistic strategic advice on the military. The internal workings of the Pentagon—from procurement issues to budget reform (which is desperately needed)—should be left to the deputy secretary.
In fact, the DepSecDef (if you will forgive the bureaucratese) is likely the most important (and little understood) job in the Pentagon. It is often said that if one wants to get things done in the Pentagon, you go to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, not the Secretary. Yet, in previous administrations—both Republican and Democratic—the vital role of Deputy Secretary of Defense has very often been filled by the wrong kind of person.
For instance, as brilliant as he is, the choice of Paul Wolfowitz for Deputy Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld was, frankly, bizarre. Wolfowitz would have been far better suited for the State Department (indeed, rumors abounded that he had wanted originally to be the Secretary of State, but hope for that outcome was quickly dashed in the early days of the Bush transition in 2000).
Wolfowitz was a global strategist at heart and an ideologue to boot. As such, the Pentagon’s daily operations were often unfocused and sloppy. This had profoundly negative implications for the overall defense policy of the Bush Administration. Indeed, Wolfowitz was a major impediment to making necessary changes early on in the Iraq War. Such changes, had they been implemented in late 2003, would have likely avoided the mistakes that we ultimately ended up paying for from 2004-2006.
William Lynn III served as deputy secretary under the Obama Administration. The former lobbyist had the misfortune of being controversial from the day of his nomination. He was named two days after the Obama Administration had embraced a new law that forbade lobbyists from working in a part of the government that they had previously lobbied for at least two years (in Lynn’s case, he was a former lobbyist for Raytheon, a huge defense contractor).
Although Lynn had the managerial and administrative background that was commensurate with the qualifications for DepSecDef, he presided over one of the worst periods for America’s defense in recent history. Not only did Lynn implement the congressionally mandated defense sequestration budget cuts, but he also resisted actual reforms to the Pentagon, while exploding the civilian workforce in 2010.
Indeed, from his earliest confirmation hearings, Lynn insisted that reforming the Pentagon’s acquisition process was a bad idea (of course he would say that, since changing the way that the Pentagon buys things would have direct, negative implications for his previous employer.) Lynn ultimately left a Pentagon that was less effective and more choked with bureaucracy than it ever was.
Setting aside Lynn’s poor administration of the DoD, his first boss, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, claimed that he relied heavily on Lynn to run the space and cybersecurity policy portfolios. Yet America’s space and cybersecurity capabilities under the Obama Administration have been at their weakest. Even as a policy person, Lynn was as ineffectual in the role of Deputy Secretary of Defense as the much-maligned Paul Wolfowitz was (but for different reasons).
So what is this secret ingredient to being a successful Deputy Secretary of Defense? It is likely the potent combination of previous military experience coupled with some previous service in the Pentagon’s civilian apparatus. This is why the recent reports that General Mattis wishes to retain the current Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert O. Work, for at least the next three to six months, are heartening to hear.
Work has been instrumental at the Pentagon. He has performed admirably under tough conditions since his confirmation in 2013. The Deputy Secretary has helped create the much-needed Third Offset Strategy. Born in an age of constraint, it is Work’s brainchild for blunting the numerical superiority that many of America’s enemies have over the U.S. military today. The Third Offset relies on technological supremacy in spite of a constrained budget. As Peter Navarro describes:
Robert Work’s twenty-first century search for a Third Offset Strategy is driven by this sobering recognition: The repetitive cycles of weapons superiority the United States has relied on for decades is becoming shorter and shorter as America’s enemies develop—and often steal—the cutting edge technologies that have constituted the U.S. advantage.”
What’s more, Work’s views on space warfare (and his understandable fear of recent Chinese and Russian advances in space warfare capabilities) make him a prime candidate to help the Trump Administration ensure that America retains its military dominance.
Now, Work certainly has his negatives—not least of which is the fact that he is a registered Democrat who willingly supported the defense policies of the worst president in recent history.
In addition, Work has expressed skepticism over the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s recent proposal to cut $125 billion from the defense budget. He also supported the DoD’s bizarre insistence that it could not increase efficiency by cutting its budget and, instead, needed to significantly increase its already-bloated civilian workforce.
More troubling, in 2012 when he was the Undersecretary of the Navy, Work wrongly submitted a budget request that reduced submarine construction. Under this plan, should war with China ever break out over Taiwan, only a single U.S. submarine could operate in the Taiwan Strait. That was potentially his worst decision in government, since submarines would be integral in any potential conflict with China.
Yet, barring the arrival of a candidate who would gel more completely with Mattis (and doesn’t have the baggage of an Obama appointee), Work is probably the best candidate for deputy. His managerial experience, his previous service as a Marine, and a majority of his policy positions would likely allow for him to operate in a symbiotic fashion with his new boss.
Work would likely keep the Pentagon running, implementing Mattis and Trump’s desired policies, and still allow for Mattis to focus on the big picture. Further, his retention—even if only for three to six months—would be a smart move to try and placate some of the new administration’s detractors in the bureaucracy.
The role of Deputy Secretary of Defense is vital to the proper implementation of America’s defense policy. The role of DepSecDef is not unlike that of a plumber: when he does his job, no one really notices him. Yet, when he is ill-suited for that job, the pipes begin to clog and the system overflows with sewage. Work is not only the Deputy Secretary of Defense that we deserve, but he is also most assuredly the deputy that the Pentagon needs.