Women in national security have chance to shine under Joe Biden

Women in national security have chance to shine under Joe Biden
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After the election victory for Joe Biden, the United States could achieve a remarkable milestone. A number of notable women could soon constitute half or more of the top positions at the Defense Department. They include Michele Flournoy, Kathleen Hicks, Melissa Dalton, Susanna Blume, as well as Mara Karlin and Jung Pak. This is great news for the country.

While women represent only about 15 percent of the uniformed members of the armed forces, that is a record high and the essential element of the United States military today. We could not maintain the strict standards of excellence in the volunteer services without them. Women also now have access to all kinds of different positions in the branches, such as frontline combat with the military infantry along with the special forces.

Much of the conversation at the moment revolves around Flournoy. She is one of the most conscientious and capable people I have met in 30 years living in Washington. She would be easily confirmed by the Senate. More importantly, she would handle the Pentagon focus with Russia and China with a steady hand and strong determination, but also with restraint and clear desire to avoid confrontation and war whenever possible, so I hope Biden nominates her for the top job at the Defense Department.


As many are already lauding Flournoy, I want to mention another woman who has achieved some visibility in recent times, but who may not come to mind right away as a candidate for a senior job with the Pentagon. She must, however, be seen as a strong contender. She is Amy McGrath, who lost her Senate race to Mitch McConnell. She would make a spectacular Navy secretary, and I hope Biden will consider her for that role.

As a veteran aviator, McGarth has nearly 90 combat sorties under her belt and knows what it means to wear the uniform. She became one of the first women in Marine Corps history to sit in the cockpit of the fighter jet, even though McConnell told her not to bother with such an effort and to chase another dream when she wrote to the junior senator from Kentucky when she was a high school student to ask for his advice on the issue.

As someone who served for more than 20 years and taught Navy officers at Annapolis, she complements the impressive but almost purely civilian short list of women and men for frontline roles at the Pentagon. It would benefit the next administration enormously, on substantive and political terms, to find more individuals with military service to be leaders at the Pentagon. McGrath can certainly bring that feature to the table.

She runs the intellect to contribute to the debate where the United States continues to focus with the maritime theater for the Indo Pacific region as well as the return to great power competition. I know this since she was in my graduate course at Johns Hopkins University one decade ago. She has the smarts to contribute to the debate about how to design both the Navy and Marine Corps for the future in order to pursue this strategy.

As a mother, she understands the family side of military service and could likely work to increase the number of women in key roles at the Pentagon. She could even make it more feasible for men and women to take time off from military service to raise children with a chance to return later. These are the kinds of issues that Pentagon leaders cannot ignore today. Civilian leaders often do not have the insight or credibility to enact such changes on their own at the Pentagon. But McGrath has great leverage.

She could give the Navy and Marine Corps a much needed shot in the arm at a time when there have been various scandals and several changes with the top in recent years. Beyond singing her praises, my argument above is that it is not enough for Biden to think about gender and racial diversity. If he wants military leaders who look and feel like the country, he must have people who have served and done so with distinction. McGrath is such an individual. There are some others as well. However, the retired lieutenant colonel aviator of Kentucky could be a wonderful place to start.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.