Misguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon

Misguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon
© Greg Nash

Leadership matters. The lack of it in key positions in our nation’s Defense Department is proof of this point in ways that hamper our national security.  

The department has 61 presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions. Of that, just 21 are in place — barely one in three. Worse yet, nearly 20 openings don’t even have a nominee. Clearly, something is broken, and creating more hurdles to service in government, like some in Congress desire, will only make it worse. 

Exaggerated fears of conflicts of interest and a “revolving door” of defense industry executives filling senior positions in the Pentagon and vice versa are limiting who can serve. While some senators try extending the time executives must recuse themselves from returning to their industry careers (twice the length applied to the senators themselves), fewer are even willing to serve. 

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Expanding the recusal rule to four years is excessive and deters public service. Protocols are in place to prevent conflict-of-interest concerns from harming national security. If we want capable candidates with expertise to serve, we have three choices:

  • Nominate experts who get the nuances of innovation, profit and loss, supply chain and of delivering military capabilities;
  • Nominate someone who just wants to cut costs, or;
  • Leave the position vacant and create more strategic atrophy.

Let’s be clear: Good people are serving in senior Defense Department appointee positions. But the gridlock in filling the remaining vacancies means current appointees don’t have the time or authority to focus on responsibilities outside their purview. There are also amazing senior civil servants in the department. However, they are there to execute the strategic direction of the administration’s political appointees. Asking them to also provide strategic policy guidance would have the grave effect of unnecessarily politicizing our civil service. 

So currently, strategic atrophy is carrying the day. In one of the most critical offices, the undersecretariat for acquisition and sustainment, all four such positions remain vacant. That office sets and carries out a broad set of policies that ultimately make it the largest purchasing authority in the world. But the lack of a leader — really four leaders — at the top means policy development is happening at a glacial pace as our competitors, such as China, move ever faster.

The department’s cybersecurity policy for its industrial base is one such example where a 30-day internal review of the policy, begun in April, has yet to yield guidance to industry as we approach November.

Our government can do better. The White House and Senate Armed Services Committee must expand the talent pool and create an environment where private-sector leaders are both considered for positions and motivated to serve. 

There’s ample history to show that industry leaders can truly serve the nation’s interest. Norm Augustine served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, later led Lockheed Martin and provided leadership as assistant director of defense research and engineering and later as undersecretary of the Army. His understanding of business helped drive the innovations that played a critical role in winning the Cold War. 

More recently, Ellen Lord as undersecretary for defense for acquisition and sustainment, garnered the most performance possible out of all Defense Department contracting through innovative incentives and contracting vehicles.  

Unfortunately, some believe we must look elsewhere for all the department’s leadership. This will limit not just the pool of talent from which presidents can recruit, but also limit the diversity — especially cognitive diversity — around the table when key decisions are made. While professors, think-tank wonks, former officers and campaign officials have their place in government, people who have succeeded in business and understand industry are a key voice in how our government can better operate.  

Our economy requires companies to turn a profit and provide a return on investments. If not, businesses perish. It’s a basic principle that drives competition, innovation and performance. Having industry leaders on the government side of the table in these key unfilled department roles would harness those dynamics to serve our warfighters, the Defense Department and, ultimately, our nation’s security.  

Leadership matters. Let’s make it easier to find a more diverse talent pool and create a system where the best and brightest can consider public service. The Biden administration and Senate Armed Services Committee need to open the aperture on who can and should serve. Filling these key positions in defense leadership should be the priority.

Retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle is president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA). Carlisle served for nearly 40 years, his last assignment as commander of Air Combat Command. NDIA, comprised of nearly 1,600 corporate members, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates its constituents on all aspects of national security.