Washington, D.C.—The Pentagon and its fans are optimistic about building for the future after the Senate’s confirmation of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who may finally bring stability to the Department of Defense’s top position. Many senior officials believe that the unprecedented leadership turnover and abrupt changes to offensive schemes have hampered the Pentagon’s growth. They believe Esper is the long-term answer, but getting here wasn’t easy.
For those of you who haven’t been following the drama, here’s a rundown of what happened:
- SecDef Jim Mattis, who took the role in January 2017, implemented a West Coast spread offense to support U.S. allies in Asia and stretch opponents’ defenses. The Department of Defense was really getting comfortable in its second year under Mattis, but he suddenly resigned in 2018 after recurring disagreements with ownership over strategy.
- Mattis’s unexpected resignation thrust Patrick Shanahan into an Acting role. Shanahan had worked at Boeing for 31 years, but trying to impose his own system exposed critical shortcomings. “More like play-inaction,” a Pentagon official remarked, “He thought “no huddle” meant reducing the number of meetings. Seriously, it was like watching an executive from Wilson Sporting Goods try a head coaching job. Knows all about the equipment but nothing about the nuances of using it.” Shanahan withdrew from the confirmation process after six months, and the churn continued.
- Mark Esper replaced Shanahan as the next Acting SecDef and brought another brand-new scheme. As former Secretary of the Army, he began implementing a hard-nosed “ground-and-pound” approach, but Esper had to step aside after 21 days as part of the confirmation process.
- Richard Spencer, the next Acting SecDef and a former Marine Aviator, attempted to force a scheme change to an up-tempo “air-raid” approach. Thankfully, Spencer’s eight-day tenure before Esper returned to the top role wasn’t long enough to change Esper’s new field manuals, “which had just been fucking printed,” noted one Deputy Secretary.
Esper supporters assert that the Senate’s backing will allow him to shape the Department in his image, but “nay” voters highlighted potential concerns. “We have to consider available personnel. If we try to force a scheme we don’t have the right people for, it will set us back even further,” warned Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Others are worried that Esper’s emphasis on the ground game will come at the expense of other capabilities. “Because the risks of conflicts have evolved, we can’t just focus on the ground wars,” lectured Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). “We need a balanced approach that prioritizes doomsday clock management and nuclear football control.” Finally, much like Mattis, the relationship between Esper and ownership could sour at any time over just about anything. Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sighed ruefully. “Like at least one other Washington franchise, I don’t think the Pentagon will be truly successful until there’s a change of ownership.”