Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief ousts hundreds from advisory panels | Defense pick discusses Trump transition hurdles | Aircraft carrier returning home after 10-month deployment
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ousted hundreds of members from the Pentagon’s advisory committees, removing last-minute appointees by the Trump administration, the Department of Defense (DOD) revealed Tuesday.
Austin fired all members serving on DOD advisory boards and also ordered “the immediate suspension of all advisory committee operations until the review is completed,” effective Feb. 16. The boards are on hold while the Pentagon completes a “zero-based review” of at least 42 defense advisory committees, according to a Jan. 30 memo.
The review includes the more visible Defense Policy Board, Defense Science Board and Defense Business Board, as well as former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller’s four choices to serve on the congressionally mandated commission tasked with renaming Confederate-named military bases, a senior Defense official told reporters.
Austin’s message: “Advisory committees have and will continue to provide an important role in shaping public policy within DoD. That said, our stewardship responsibilities require that we continually assess to ensure each advisory committee provides appropriate value today and in the future, as times and requirements change,” Austin said in the memo.
Days earlier: The effort comes days after Austin halted the installation of several loyalists of former President Trump to such advisory boards, the role of which is to provide advice to the Defense secretary.
Trump’s bottom of the 9th play: Shortly after the November election, the Trump administration removed longstanding experts on several such Pentagon panels, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright from the Defense Policy Board. In their place, the previous administration named Trump loyalists.
The Trump administration also named former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie to the Defense Business Board after nine board members were fired.
Austin concerned: “There’s no question … that the frenetic activity that occurred to the composition of so many boards in just the period of November to January deeply concerned the secretary and certainly helped drive him to this decision,” top Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
The scrutiny will allow Austin “to consider the broad scope and purpose of these boards and to think about how they can best be aligned and organized and composed to provide competent technical, professional policy advice to the department,” the senior Defense official said.
“He’s mindful that there will be people who may look at this in a different way than he does. He certainly respects their rights to have that criticism, but he believes that … this was the most fair, the most equitable, the most uniform way” to address this.
TOP DEFENSE PICK SAYS TRUMP TRANSITION CREATED HURDLES: 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.
A blocked 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.”
She 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.”
Easy confirmation expected: 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.
Triad modernization in future? 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 new cruise missile known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), and the intercontinental ballistic missile replacement known as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
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.”
AIRCRAFT CARRIER RETURNING HOME: The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz is returning stateside after nearly 10 months overseas amid tensions with Iran, the Pentagon confirmed on Tuesday.
The lone Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East, the Nimitz left the Arabian Sea and 5th Fleet after being deployed for more than 270 days, an unusually long deployment. The vessel is currently in the Indo-Pacific on its way back to the United States, according to top Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
‘Balancing act’: He called the move “a balancing act” between the U.S. military’s requirements and capabilities and not a response to “a specific piece of intel in a specific part of the world.”
“We don’t make decisions like this lightly and there’s a lot of factors, particularly when you’re dealing with a strike group that has been at sea and deployed for as long as it has been – 10 months – and so you have to consider the wear and tear on the ship itself as well as the effect on sailors,” Kirby said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East to respond and it’s a constant discussion that he has … His belief is that this move is in the national interest.”
The background: The Nimitz and its 5,000-member crew returns to the ship’s home port of Bremerton, Wash., after a whirlwind of back and forth decisions made by the Trump administration in late December and early January.
Former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller in late December directed that the Nimitz return directly home in a show of de-escalating tensions with Iranian leadership.
But three days later Miller reversed his decision, keeping the vessel in the Persian Gulf after the Pentagon claimed there were threats from Iran against former President Trump.
The Nimitz was first deployed to the region amid mounting brinkmanship with Tehran, which was sparked by Trump’s 2018 decision to pull the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.
The Nimitz’s return comes as President Biden looks to renew discussions with Iran to return to the Obama-era nuclear deal.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Navy is releasing nearly 60 recommendations from its final report of Task Force One Navy, a six-month effort to examine systemic racism and the needs of underserved communities in the ranks.
The National Defense Industrial Association will hold its virtual Expeditionary Warfare Conference, with remarks from Vice Adm. William Galinis, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, at 9:45 a.m.
The House Armed Services Committee will meet to organize for the 117th Congress at 11 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118.
The Association of the U.S. Army will hold its “Noon Report” webinar, with Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command, at 12 p.m.
U.S. Space Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw will speak at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium 365 virtual event at 1 p.m.
Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford will speak at the United States Institute of Peace webinar on the release of the final report of the Afghanistan Study Group at 2:30 p.m.
— The Hill: GOP congressman: Army must push FBI, Congress for more specifics on Capitol threats
— The Hill: Officials applaud confirmation of Mayorkas as DHS secretary over cybersecurity concerns
— The Hill: US triggers sanctions on Myanmar by calling military takeover a coup
— The Hill: Facebook bans Myanmar national military TV network page
— The Associated Press: Russia hints it may return to Open Skies Treaty if US does
— Military Times: This is why so few troops have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine
— Stars and Stripes: VA sends mobile Vet Centers to provide counseling on Capitol Hill