With Ashton Carter pegged to become the No. 2 civilian at the Defense Department, defense and congressional sources say it’s a three-horse race to replace him as Pentagon acquisition chief.
The White House announced Tuesday that Carter will be nominated to follow the departing William Lynn as deputy Defense secretary, which would make him the right-hand man of new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The front-runners are Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Sean Stackley, the Navy’s acquisition executive, defense and congressional sources said. A longer shot — described by one congressional aide as “the safe pick” — is Frank Kendall, now Carter’s top deputy in the Pentagon’s acquisition shop.
Carter’s successor will inherit a number of troubled major weapon programs, as well as the prospect of defense budget cuts that sources say could approach $900 billion over a decade.
If the “supercommittee” of lawmakers set up by the Budget Control Act fails to come up with big federal spending reductions by late November, a trigger would be pulled, setting off about $600 billion in national-security budget cuts. And that would be on top of what the White House says is $350 billion in security cuts over the same span under the first phase of the law.
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That means whoever is tapped to follow Carter as the Pentagon’s top purchaser will have to continue his efforts to pare the costs of every major weapon program and ensure the department is getting the best possible deals from industry when negotiating contracts.
Each of the candidates is greatly admired by White House officials and respected by defense industry executives, sources say.
Sources said the White House has several options.
Going with Stackley or Kendall would put in place a veteran acquisition official who has extensive experience working with industry on contracts and weapons program management issues.
“Stackley is widely respected and a competent acquisition official,” a senior defense industry official told The Hill on Wednesday.
Stackley has been a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and later was the manager for the sea service’s LPD-17 amphibious transport ship program.
Kendall has held a list of senior Pentagon jobs, and also was an executive for Raytheon.
One defense insider sees a potential hurdle for Stackley, however.
“Sean Stackley is widely admired, but he is a holdover from a Republican administration,” noted Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “That could make promotion of … Kendall the easier move.”
He was LPD-17 program manager and later tapped by the George W. Bush administration for the Navy acquisition chief post, a job he has had since July 2008.
Mabus would bring solid bona fides to the job, as well, sources said.
He is a former Democratic governor of Mississippi, and the Clinton administration in 1994 installed him into the important post of ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mabus also has been the chairman and CEO of Foamex, a major manufacturing company that he led out of bankruptcy in less than a year.
Mabus was among those on the list to become Defense secretary earlier this year, defense sources said, noting there is a sense the White House owes him one.
“He was very active during the president’s  campaign,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress. “And he is still very close to the White House.”
What’s more, Korb said, the Navy secretary’s resume means he “would have clout with industry.”