Deputy Defense secretary nominee: Transition obstruction created hurdles for Pentagon budget
President Biden’s nominee to be the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian suggested Tuesday the Trump administration’s obstruction of the presidential transition could delay the Pentagon’s fiscal 2022 budget request.
During the transition, Biden officials accused political appointees at the Pentagon of obstruction in areas ranging from the budget to COVID-19 response to Afghanistan withdrawal plans.
Kathleen Hicks led Biden’s Pentagon transition team until he nominated her for deputy Defense secretary in late December.
During her Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday, Hicks predicted the biggest challenge for her ability to do the job of deputy secretary after the hindered transition will be in tackling next year’s budget.
“I think the biggest challenge that I will face if confirmed because of this is around budget transparency,” she said. “The Trump administration worked on an FY22 budget. That’s not unusual, but typically that information is shared with the transition team because the administration will owe to Congress a president’s budget submission in the spring.”
Biden’s transition team was finally able to look at the budget information in late January after Hicks stepped away, she said; however, she still expects the initial resistance to cause “some delay in the timeline by which we can give budget quality information back to the Congress. So that would be the area I would ask for a little relief and understanding.”
Hicks also stressed that “the vast majority of folks that we worked with in the Pentagon were incredibly helpful, knowledgeable, forthcoming” during the transition and that “the challenges we faced were really around a handful of folks that made things difficult.”
Hicks, who served as a deputy under secretary of Defense during the Obama administration and most recently led the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is expected to be easily confirmed after winning bipartisan praise during Tuesday’s hearing. She would be the first woman to be confirmed in the deputy secretary job.
In addition to the history-making aspect of her nomination, her selection to be the Pentagon’s second highest civilian has garnered attention after Biden chose a recently retired general to be Defense secretary.
Senators largely supported Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s confirmation despite some lingering concerns about eroding the norm of civilian control of the military after Austin pledged to empower civilian voices in the building, including Hicks if she is confirmed.
Austin also pledged during his confirmation hearing to recuse himself from decisions involving defense contractor Raytheon Technologies for the entirety of his tenure because he previously served on the company’s board of directors.
That means decisions involving Raytheon will fall to Hicks, including major nuclear weapons programs such as the new cruise missile known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), in which the company is a prime contractor, and the intercontinental ballistic missile replacement known as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), in which a Raytheon subsidiary is a subcontractor.
Republicans repeatedly pressed Hicks for her views on nuclear modernization, attempting to get her on the record in opposition to a push by some Democrats to cancel the LRSO and GBSD programs.
Hicks said she supports nuclear modernization and personally supports all three legs of the nuclear triad, but did not endorse any specific weapons programs and made clear she would defer to Austin and Biden on U.S. nuclear policy questions.
“I am committed to a modernized, qualitatively effective deterrent,” she said in response to questions from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on whether she would commit to deploying the GBSD on schedule.
“I would be very much focused on the viability of the programming element of this, and I would be in support of the secretary of course on the major policy issues regarding nuclear posture where he seeks my advice, but as I said in my opening statement, I think my job is to make sure we can execute on the president’s direction and on Secretary Austin’s direction,” she added.
And asked by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) whether the Biden administration’s expected nuclear posture would “not simply be a rubber stamp of our current nuclear strategy, but that you really will examine and re-question the core assumptions that underpin it,” Hick replied “absolutely.”
During his confirmation hearing, Austin also said he personally supports the triad, which refers to delivering a nuclear weapon by air, sea or land, but also said he would need to do more review of ongoing programs when he’s confirmed.
Republicans also pressed Hicks on a 2017 recommendation from a commission on which she served that the National Defense Strategy needs the defense budget to grow 3 to 5 percent each year to be properly resourced. Hick said she stands by that estimate as a “general rule of thumb” for that strategy, which the Biden administration is expected to update.
The Pentagon has projected relatively flat budgets for the next few years because of external pressures such as ballooning U.S. debt.
Progressive Democrats, empowered by the party retaking the White House and Senate, are also expected to push for at least a 10 percent Defense budget cut.
Pressed by Warren whether the Defense budget could be cut without sacrificing U.S. security, Hicks argued focus on the top-line dollar amount “can really obscure a more important conversation around what is it we want our military” to do.
“I agree with you that the nation has seen in this past year a crisis that is generational in this magnitude, and I certainly understand how it calls into question what the priorities are across our government,” Hicks said. “I also, though, believe that we are a nation that can afford the defense that it needs to have.”
“I do think there are ways for the Defense Department to be more efficient, to be more effective,” Hicks added. “But, frankly some of the things, some of the levers that are available take a lot of partnership between Congress, the executive branch, industry and others to make some hard choices. It would be hard to significantly squeeze the defense budget in light of the threats that we face without that kind of effort together to get to some hard choices.”
Pressed further by Warren on whether the topline can be cut, Hick replied, “Yes, so long as we’re willing to make some decisions that may incur risk themselves.”