The Pentagon is lucky to have Trump's stellar staffing choices

The Pentagon is lucky to have Trump's stellar staffing choices
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Have too many defense industry executives moved into Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s Pentagon? Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin MORE (D-Mass.) certainly seems to think so.

Last week, just before the vote to confirm former Lockheed executive John Rood as under secretary of defense for policy, the Massachusetts Democrat took to the Senate floor to object to the “unprecedented number” of defense industry officials being nominated to top Pentagon posts.

She noted that Rood joins the ranks of Mark Esper, Ryan McCarthy, Pat Shanahan and Ellen Lord — all former defense industry executives now serving in senior DoD positions. “These nominees have the power to significantly influence the profitability of their former employers.” Warren said, suggesting that they will be sorely tempted to steer lucrative deals to their old corporate chums.

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“Industry experience, in and of itself, does not disqualify someone from public service,” Warren condescended. “But,” she warned, “there must be balance.” 

 

Balance between what?

Warren ignores the reality that experience as a defense industry executive is arguably the best preparation possible to be successful as a senior leader in the Pentagon. Instead, she assumes that former industry leaders will fall prey to cronyism — a theme that pervades the movies, but has little basis in history.

So, what qualities should we seek in filling these posts? It’s important to remember that the Defense Department is a complex global enterprise, spending over $650 billion annually. With a workforce of over two million people, it is the nation’s largest employer. Its leaders must be both comfortable and experienced making consequential decisions involving thousands of lives, billions of dollars and the security of our nation. 

What’s needed are proven leaders of character, experienced in leading and managing organizations of thousands — optimally, tens of thousands — of men and women. This aspect cannot be overstated. Typically, only those who have successfully led a large organization can bring the confidence and skills necessary to drive change in the vast Pentagon bureaucracy. And if they are to hit the ground running, they must also be very familiar with the nature and themes of national defense. 

Can such people get the requisite experience by running a small business? Nope.

How about members of Congress or defense experts from think tanks or academia? With rare exceptions, they have never led a large organization to success. 

Maybe former Pentagon or other high-ranking government officials? In some cases, bringing back former officials risks bringing in dated perspectives or admirers of the status quo. 

Well then, how about senior executives from a non-defense industry? To make informed decisions at the Pentagon, a leader must know the fundamentals of the U.S. defense enterprise. Because their attention has been focused elsewhere, most private sector executives outside of the defense industry haven’t a clue about this.

Which leaves us, by and large, with senior executives in the U.S. defense industry, people who have spent years leading large organizations, learning the needs and intricacies of the Defense Department and managing profit and loss. 

History suggests that this kind of background helps Pentagon leaders make immediate and important improvements. As secretary of defense from 1994-1996, William Perry was recognized for the strong leadership and management skills he brought to the Pentagon. Perry was one of Silicon Valley’s early entrepreneurs, founding a defense electronics company that grew to over 3,000 people. The New York Times reported that Perry “quickly restored order, discipline and morale, three qualities crucial to military effectiveness.”

Gordon England, a two-time secretary of the Navy and one-time deputy secretary of defense, was another example of an industry leader able to transform the Pentagon. The Washington Post credited England with “directing some of the most sweeping changes the service has seen in decades.”

But what about Warren’s concerns that former industry officials will abuse Pentagon posts to enrich either themselves or their former employers? That hasn’t happened since 1991, when former Boeing executive Melvyn Paisley was convicted of accepting bribes while an assistant secretary of the Navy. And thanks to today’s capacious rules governing federal procurement, ethics and recusals, chances of a similar scandal happening again are virtually non-existent. 

Additional safeguards are now in place. Pentagon officials are required to divest all investments that could be linked to their future decisions. And procedures keep senior officials totally separate from contract award decisions.

Far from enriching themselves, defense executives typically take a substantial cut in compensation to work at the Pentagon. Financial disclosure forms reveal that many recent Pentagon nominees made well over $1 million per year in their former jobs. These patriots aren’t looking for money, they are looking to serve their country — and willing to pay the price to do so.

Americans should be grateful to have the likes of Shanahan, Esper, McCarthy, Lord and now Rood in key positions at the Pentagon. These successful executives are working to make the U.S. military stronger and more efficient.

Shanahan is moving the Defense Department to cloud computing and greater overall accountability. Lord is fully engaged in streamlining the DOD’s byzantine acquisition process. Esper and McCarthy have taken up the intractable challenge of Army modernization. 

These leaders have elected to leave highly successful careers and devote their talents, energy and experience to public service. The Pentagon is lucky to have them. And they certainly deserve better than to have their character questioned on the Senate floor.

Former Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.