Biden's fine choice for deputy secretary of Defense

Biden's fine choice for deputy secretary of Defense
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President-elect Biden’s decision to nominate Kathleen Hicks, the leader of his defense transition team, to be deputy secretary of Defense is good news for the department. She brings to the job extensive knowledge of policy and budgetary issues, a well-deserved reputation for smart management, and an insider’s perspective based on years of service in the Department of Defense (DOD).

I know Kath Hicks well, both as a colleague at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where I have worked with her on several of the projects that she has led over the years, and as a co-presenter at the Naval War College’s annual “Strategy Meets Budget” event. She impresses me as someone who has her feet firmly planted in budgetary ground, recognizing that policy must account for the reality that there must be coherent trade-offs at any given budget level.

Her ability to manage budgets to programmatic and policy ends reflects her wealth of experience both inside and outside the Pentagon. Inside the Pentagon, she rose from working as a presidential management intern — the lowest staff level — to serve as both a deputy under secretary for strategy, plans and forces and then as a Senate-confirmed principal deputy under secretary for policy. Outside the DOD, she has directed the CSIS international security program while simultaneously holding a senior academic position at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


Hicks is no mere academic, however. She was a member of the congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission, in which she played a major and forceful role in developing its 2018 report on the state of the nation’s current and future defenses. She also was a member of the congressionally-mandated National Commission on the Future of the Army. In both instances, as with her position at CSIS, she demonstrated a nonpartisan approach to defense issues, winning the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is a stance that will serve her well as she interacts with what most of us expect will be a highly-partisan Congress.

Hicks’s service on both commissions also will be of great value because she will be making difficult budgetary choices as a result of what’s anticipated to be significant pressure on defense budget levels. Indeed, if defense budgets continue to decline in real terms — as they are likely to do once the fiscal year 2021 budget is approved — Army end-strength may be the focus of potential cuts. Hicks will be able to draw upon her expertise and insights into all aspects of the Army program. 

Hicks would be the first female to serve as a Senate-confirmed deputy secretary. But her gender is beside the point. Far more important is the fact that, unlike some of her predecessors, she understands that the deputy secretary is not merely the secretary’s alter ego, especially when it comes to policy matters. The role of the “DepSec” is to ensure that the department responds quickly and capably to any demand put to it by the National Command Authority

That means securing force levels that can defeat any and all threats to the nation’s worldwide interests. That means having a cutting-edge acquisition program that is responsive to the expected requirements that will arise in all domains of today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields — land, air, sea, space and cyber. It means ensuring a capable, efficient back office to support all aspects of the DOD’s program. And it means producing budgets that, even in a constrained environment, meet the military’s needs wherever they might materialize.

The bar for any deputy secretary of Defense is far higher than most outside the department realize. Given her experience, expertise and management skills, if confirmed, Hicks can be expected to rise well above it.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.