Lingering Pentagon Vacancies Seen Affecting Strategy, Arms Buys

  • Administration priorities could be hampered, analyst says
  • Absence of inspector general a concern, senators write Trump

The Senate’s confirmation of the Pentagon’s two top leaders before the August recess ended the longest period without a permanent defense secretary, but vacancies in 15 other top civilian positions may pose risks.

“It does affect two things. One of them is the ability to move the department along the direction of the administration’s strategy,” said Mark Cancian, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Another issue is maintaining civilian influence over major weapons decisions, he said.

The Army and Air Force, inspector general, the Pentagon’s independent analysis shop, and comptroller are all being led by temporary officials. The vacancies among the 59 civilian positions confirmed by the Senate are far lower than highs in 2017 but have ticked up because of recent Pentagon turnover in the third year of the Trump administration.

Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Esper testifies

Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied vacancies hurt the department, and said following his confirmation July 23 that filling the positions as quickly as possible is still a top priority.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in December, helmed a major rewrite of Pentagon defense strategy last year that is shifting the military’s focus to a potentially major power conflict with Russia and China and away from counter-terrorism.

Without a full team of civilian appointees to carry out such shifts, the military can also get outsized influence that could reverberate down to new weapons programs and innovation, Cancian said.

“It is not that the military is against those programs but the services are more inclined to continue some of the older programs and therefore there would be fewer resources for the newer programs,” he said.

Esper, when he was Army secretary, spearheaded the so-called “night court” review sessions that led to a plan to slash $25 billion worth of outdated programs. “You can only do that if you are the confirmed secretary. It is very hard to make those big changes as an acting,” Cancian said.

Temporary Leaders

The Army is now being led temporarily by Ryan McCarthy, who President Donald Trump announced as Esper’s permanent replacement in June, and the Air Force has been helmed by Matt Donovan for two months. The president tweeted in May that Arizona businesswoman Barbara Barrett would be the nominee to lead that service.

Acting civilian leaders might not have the “full confidence of the role” but the Pentagon “didn’t miss any beats” during the first seven months of this year when all of its top three positions were held by unconfirmed officials, Esper said July 24.

David Norquist was sworn in as deputy defense secretary by the Senate on Wednesday but the department’s chief management officer, a newly created position under the deputy, has been filled in a temporary capacity since December by Lisa Hershman as she awaits her own confirmation.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) have also raised the alarm over the inspector general vacancy at the Pentagon—at 1,255 days as of June 17, the senators said—urging the president to put forward a candidate.

“The absence of an IG at the Defense Department is of particular concern due to the large budgets, personnel, contracts, and equipment it commands,” they wrote to Trump in June.

It is vital the Pentagon has a watchdog for taxpayers’ money and to root out waste, fraud and abuse, Grassley’s office told Bloomberg Government.

Recent turnover has also left other key positions unconfirmed. In May, Robert Daigle stepped down as the head of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, which provides independent analysis to the defense secretary and can help civilian leadership in debates with the uniformed military.

Over the past five months, other departures have left assistant secretary vacancies in policy areas such as special operations, Navy installations and environment, and nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

While concerns exist over the vacancies, they are dwarfed by the past openings toward the end of the administration’s first year, when as much as 70 percent of the 59 positions were still unconfirmed.

Speeding Up Confirmations

Esper said the Pentagon has an understanding with Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who lead the Armed Services Committee and vet candidates, that rapid confirmations are needed. Inhofe touted the confirmations of Esper and Norquist, as well as uniformed officers to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Navy.

“Ranking member Reed and I, along with our entire committee, adjusted our schedule and process to clear as many nominations as possible,” Inhofe said Friday in a statement.

Esper has also said he also expects new nominations coming from the White House.

The slow pace of the White House and a lack of nominees are major challenges to filling out the Pentagon’s roster. For 11 of those jobs, the White House has yet to even send Congress formal nominations yet and any votes on existing nominees are weeks or even months away.

Trump tweeted out May 21 that he planned to nominate Barrett, the former chairman of the federally funded Aerospace Corporation research center, to replace outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. But more than two months later the White House has not released an official notice of the pick or filed nomination paperwork with the Senate.

Candidates who do make it to the Senate also face potentially long waits.

As they were leaving town Thursday, senators finally confirmed Thomas McCaffery as assistant defense secretary for health affairs. The nomination for the top department official for all health policies, programs and activities had languished in the chamber since Trump nominated him in August 2018.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at; Jonathan Nicholson at