Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to reporters at the Pentagon Aug. 28. Photo: SSgt. Nicole Mejia
With an armful of priorities and promises, Mark T. Esper launched his tenure as the 27th Secretary of Defense in July. Like Jim Mattis, who departed last December—leaving Patrick M. Shanahan as the Acting Secretary for seven months—Esper has pledged to make the US military more lethal and better able to tackle the new era of great power competition. But he’s staked himself to an apolitical approach to national defense, emphasizing international alliances, personal ethical behavior, and transparency with the press. If he can’t make good on those markers, Esper said, he’ll resign.
Comparisons between Esper and Mattis are perhaps inevitable, as both had long military careers, are strategic thinkers, and clearly prize America’s alliances more greatly than does President Donald J. Trump. It remains to be seen whether Esper will feel as free to disagree with the president as Mattis did about how to maintain those alliances, which are called out in Trump’s own National Defense Strategy as the bedrock of American security.
At a Pentagon press conference a month into his tenure, Esper said “my commitment is to keep this Department apolitical” and promised that he and the incoming Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, will set the tone for the armed forces by “behaving in an apolitical way,” and through “the leadership that we demonstrate, the values we emulate.”
Mattis, promoting his new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, warned in September that the nation has divided into “hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain.” The former Marine general turned Defense Secretary said he worries that this attitude may be soaking into the armed forces as well, such as incidents when troops have been seen wearing “MAGA” hats or attending political rallies in uniform. Asked about this at Esper’s first press conference, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said top leaders shouldn’t get involved in such things. These are best addressed by the “sergeants major, first sergeants, and chief master sergeants on the scene,” he said. “They’re not things that rise to the level of the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman.”
The US military consistently polls as one of the most highly trusted institutions in the US. Still, Esper added, “It’s a fragile thing, and we have to safeguard it.”
In the briefing, Esper outlined his three principal “lines of effort:” Build a more lethal force, strengthen alliances and partnerships, and reform the Pentagon’s business practices to be more speedy and efficient. “And I added line of effort four for me: Taking care of service members and their families.”
Esper was introduced at his confirmation hearing by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who offered confidence in the sincerity of Esper’s concern for the troops by telling a story from Esper’s time as Army Secretary. Esper had invited Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to see housing conditions at Fort Belvoir, Va., not far from Washington, quarters that were notorious for problems. Kaine said he was skeptical, expecting to see a “Potemkin Village,” meant to suggest the Army had successfully addressed complaints.
Instead, Esper revealed “the unvarnished version of problematic housing and people who had been treated badly and couldn’t get help from their chain of command,” Kaine said, describing it as a “blunt and heartbreaking” display. In subsequent discussions with other families and base leaders, Esper wouldn’t accept delay or “substandard responses,” Kaine said, insisting “that the families be dealt with fairly and promptly.”
While “most of us were very discouraged by the resignation of Secretary Mattis,” Kaine told his fellow senators at Esper’s confirmation hearing, “we’ve hoped for … a successor who could show the same level of candor and principle and a willingness to remain independent even in the most challenging circumstances. I believe Dr. Esper has those traits.”
Asked in Senate Armed Services Committee colloquy whether he would consider resigning if he can’t live up to the ethical bar he’s set for himself, Esper answered “absolutely.” Convinced, the Senate confirmed Esper by an overwhelming 90-8 vote.
CHINA, RUSSIA, AND A NEW BATTLE RHYTHM
Esper said his priority would be confronting China and Russia, both of which, he told reporters, are “building up and modernizing their military forces to challenge the United States and enable their geopolitical aspirations.” He also accused North Korea and Iran of intentionally moving to “promote instability.” In response, he said, the Defense Department must continue to “balance current needs”—that is, readiness—with “the needs of the future,” or modernization.
He described a whirlwind first month in office, during which he made a lengthy tour of Pacific allies and US installations. Strategically, Esper said, the Far East is his top “priority theater,” and that’s why he went there first. China, he said, is executing a “deliberate strategy to undermine the stability of the region.” Leaders in the Indo-Pacific with whom he met told him they want the US to “show leadership” in their part of the world, and this Esper said he promised, although, in a nod to one of President Trump’s favorite themes, he said the US will press “for equitable burden-sharing from them, as well.”
He also asserted that he’s changed the “battle rhythm” in the Pentagon, stepping up meetings with department leaders to rapidly realign departmental priorities with the National Defense Strategy.
For all programs and activities, he’s asking, “ ‘Why are we doing it?’ and ‘What should we be doing instead?’ ” Often running late, the meetings have come to be known as “Night Court.”
This all amounts to a DOD-wide review process to identify money or manpower that can be reallocated to higher priorities. Deputy Defense Secretary David L. Norquist is in charge of this effort, beginning with the Pentagon’s so-called “fourth estate”—civilian defense agencies and their army of employees.
Following Esper’s lead, Air Force officials are also looking for things it can stop doing.
Acting Air Force Secretary Matthew P. Donovan quoted Esper in a speech in Arlington, Va., Sept. 4, saying, “his guidance states that ‘No reform is too small, too bold, or too controversial to be considered.’ ” Then he added: “The Air Force is leading the way with bold and likely controversial changes to our future budgets. We need to shift funding and allegiance from legacy programs we can no longer afford due to their incompatibility with future battlefields.” The Air Force canceled the Joint STARS Recap program for just this reason.
In his confirmation hearing, Esper stated that he’s “fully committed” to honoring the department’s ethics requirements as regard any actions affecting his former employer, defense contractor Raytheon. But he stopped short of saying he would recuse himself from any decisions affecting that company and that a “screening process” is in place to flag any potential conflicts of interest. He said he had divested himself from Raytheon interests “in accordance with all my ethics obligations and requirements,” but still has some deferred compensation coming from the company. Those monies can’t be “influenced” by anything Esper does at the Pentagon, he insisted.
As Deputy and later Acting Secretary, Shanahan was never able to shake the perception that he favored Boeing, his employer for 30 years. Boeing won a series of big-ticket, high-profile contracts while Shanahan served first as Deputy Secretary and later as Acting Secretary, but an inspector general review found no evidence of Shanahan attempting to influence the process on Boeing’s behalf.
CONTINUITY UNDER FIRE
Esper’s approach to dealing with military crises is likely to be consistent with those of Mattis and Shanahan. In a de facto tour of world hotspots under questioning from the press, Esper gave no indication he will deviate much from the policies of the past two years.
Afghanistan: He declined to answer directly questions about a potential deal, which appeared to fall apart in September. Dunford tried to assure reporters that any deal with the Afghan government and the Taliban will have to be “conditions-based,” and must result in meeting the original goal of the US involvement in Afghanistan: to ensure the country cannot be a springboard for terrorism against the US and its allies. Dunford said Afghanistan cannot again become “a sanctuary from which we can be attacked.”
Asked, however, about President Trump’s controversial remark that the US could use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, Esper answered that “we reserve the right to keep all options on the table.” But “we have a plan … to resolve this conflict in a political agreement.”
Korea: Esper was asked if large-scale US-South Korean exercises—given up by President Trump as a condition of talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—will ever be resumed. He responded that Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of US forces on the peninsula, “feels that the training and exercise plan we currently have underway is sufficient to maintain our readiness” with Republic of Korea forces.
Dunford added that the exercises have been “adjusted” to be “less visible,” and “we have found other ways of maintaining a high level of readiness.”
Nevertheless, Esper said North Korea’s recent acceleration of short-range ballistic missile tests is grounds for concern and came up frequently in talks with Pacific leaders during his trip. “We want to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re not going to overreact. We want to take a measured response and make sure that we don’t close the door to diplomacy.” The goal remains to achieve an “irreversible, verifiable, complete denuclearization of the peninsula,” and the best way to get there is through a “political agreement.”
Iraq and ISIS: Responding to a question about Iraq and the health of the coalition there, given Israeli actions in that country and Lebanon, Esper said the US remains focused on “supporting Iraq and supporting our forces in Iraq to go after ISIS” and is “concerned” about anything that would “impact our mission.”
Turkey, Syria, and ISIS: NATO’s second-largest contributor of troops and equipment to the alliance isn’t getting off the hook regarding its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, and Esper said he’s not budging from the US stance that Turkey be ousted from the F-35 fighter program as a result.
“We are where we are, and it’s regrettable,” Esper said. He praised Turkey for historically being a friend and ally, “and I would hope that they would move back in our direction.” Getting the S-400 “completely out of the country” is the precondition for being readmitted to the F-35 project.
He acknowledged, though, that Turkey sees its own security problems with the war against ISIS that diverge from those of the US.
“One … we’re trying to maintain continuity in our campaign against ISIS in Syria. And two, we’re trying to address what are legitimate concerns by the Turkish government for the border between Turkey and Syria,” Esper explained, adding that such discussions have stretched for more than two-and-a-half years. The US has agreed to create a joint coordination center inside Turkey “to immediately address the threats along the border between Tukey and Syria,” to focus on removal of heavy weapons from the frontier and establish “combined patrols.”
Esper won’t be challenging Trump on the creation of the Space Force, telling the press he’s “excited” for activation of US Space Command as “the next crucial step” in creating “an additional armed service” for space.
While Trump has frequently demonized the press as the “enemy of the people,” Esper said he’s committed to dealing honestly and cooperatively with the media, pledging to continue the habit he set as Army Secretary—to make himself available on a regular basis to explain what the service was doing, and why. He made a point, in his first press conference as SecDef, to say he’ll extend that policy and encouraged other Pentagon leaders to do the same, as the US military “has a proud history and a great story to tell.”
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