Esper Takes Over as Secretary of Defense

Esper Takes Over as Secretary of Defense

Mark Esper was confirmed by the Senate and sworn into office this afternoon as the nation’s new Secretary of Defense.  A West Point graduate and Army veteran, Esper had been serving as Secretary of Army when he was tapped to become Acting Secretary of Defense in June and then the nominee to take the job permanently.  He has not been particularly involved in space policy issues in the past, but based on answers he gave to the Senate as part the confirmation process, he supports creation of a Space Force, U.S. Space Command, and the Space Development Agency.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Credit: DOD

Esper, 56, was sworn in as Secretary of the Army on November 20, 2017.  On June 18, 2019, he took over as Acting Secretary of Defense (SecDef) when then-Acting SecDef Patrick Shanahan left unexpectedly. Shanahan was in the process of being nominated as SecDef to replace James Mattis, who left on January 1.  With Shanahan’s departure, the top job became available and Trump soon indicated he would nominate Esper.

Due to the complicated provisions of the Federal Vacancies Act, once the formal nomination was sent to the Senate, Esper had to step down from the Acting position.  That happened last Monday.  Richard Spencer, Secretary of the Navy, has been Acting SecDef for the past week.

The musical chairs stopped at 5:45 pm ET today when Esper was sworn in as SecDef following his Senate confirmation by a 90-8 vote.   Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito administered the oath at the Oval Office ceremony as President Trump stood by.

A 1986 West Point graduate who served with the 101st Airborne Division in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, he later commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe.  Following active duty, he served in the Virginia and District of Columbia National Guard and Army Reserve. He retired in 2007.  He has a Master’s in Public Administration from the JFK School of Government at Harvard, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Washington University.

He has an extensive résumé in defense and international policy.  Among them —

  • Vice President for Government Relations at Raytheon;
  • Executive Vice President for the Global Intellectual Property Center and Vice President for Europe and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce;
  • COO and Executive Vice President of Defense and International Affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association;
  • Chief of Staff for the Heritage Foundation; and
  • congressional staffer–
    • for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,
    • as policy director for the House Armed Services Committee,
    • as professional staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations and Government Affairs committees, and
    • as legislative director and senior policy adviser to then-Senator (and later Secretary of Defense) Chuck Hagel

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a nomination hearing for Esper last Tuesday.  Anxious to get the job filled on a permanent basis, the committee waived its 7-day rule for voting on a nomination and approved it on Thursday.

DOD space activities were barely mentioned in the hearing, but he expressed his views about them in answers to written questions that were asked in advance.

The answers are in line with what Shanahan and other military officials have been saying for the past two years, notably that space is no longer a benign environment, but a warfighting domain like the other domains — land, sea, air and cyber. Esper pointed to China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as the biggest threats to U.S. space capabilities.

China and Russia pose the most pressing threats to U.S. interests in the space domain; however, I am also concerned about North Korea and Iran. Although the DPRK has no space assets and its doctrine and operational concepts are unclear, it will avail itself of space-based services, such as ISR, communications, and navigation to increase civil and military capabilities. The DPRK will try to deny an adversary use of space in a conflict and has demonstrated non-kinetic counterspace capabilities including GPS and satellite jamming. Iran openly pursues a national space program to support both military and civilian goals. Iran recognizes the value of space and counterspace capabilities and will attempt to deny adversaries the use of space during a conflict. At present, Iran is only capable of low earth orbit launches of microsatellites but continues to advance its technologies along with the pursuit of ICBMs. In the long term, I anticipate global access to the space domain to broaden as we have seen in other domains, resulting in a greater competition for access, capability, and protection. — Mark Esper

First as Deputy SecDef and then as Acting SecDef, Shanahan led the effort in DOD to change how the Department manages and executes space programs.  Spurred by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and then the White House, the plan he sent to Congress on March 1 called for creating a Space Force as part of the Air Force, and a Space Development Agency (SDA) reporting to the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD/R&E).  Trump had already started the process for a third component of the plan — reestablishing U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command.  The House and Senate are still working on legislation to respond to all of that. Each has passed their respective version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but they have many differences from the request and from each other.

Esper will now have to pick up the gauntlet to negotiate the final details.  Asked by SASC for his assessment of the Space Force legislation, he replied:

I appreciate Congress’s support for the establishment of a Space Force and, if confirmed, I look forward to working with Congress on this important initiative. Elevating the space domain to be on par with the air, land, and sea domains is critical to the nation’s defense. Although the SASC language provides key elements to elevating the space domain, such as the 4-star military leadership with membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the direct report to the Secretary of the Air Force, I urge the committee to provide the necessary technical legislative authority to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force. I also request the committee to provide the Department with the necessary resources to ensure its success. — Mark Esper

The Deputy SecDef position also has been filled on an Acting basis since January 1 when Shanahan ascended to Acting SecDef.  DOD Comptroller David Nortquist took on the additional duties of Deputy SecDef and today was officially nominated to get the job permanently.  His confirmation hearing before SASC is tomorrow.  As with Esper, the committee is waiving its 7-day rule and Norquist is also expected to be confirmed and sworn in expeditiously.

That still leaves a number of top-level DOD positions with Acting occupants, including Esper’s old job as Secretary of the Army, and Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), a position vacated by Heather Wilson at the end of May.  Trump tweeted in May that he will nominate Barbara McConnell Barrett to be the new SecAF, but it has not been sent to the Senate yet.


Note: This article was updated to clarify that Justice Alito administered the oath of office, not President Trump.

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