Opinion / Acquisition, Reform

Bad Idea: Excluding Qualified Leaders from Pentagon Service Because of Defense Industry Experience

Secretary of the Army Esper confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense

As a new administration forms, its early priority will be to identify qualified individuals to serve in national security positions, including in the Pentagon. The Plum Book, the guide to all the political appointee positions in the federal government, lists 239 political jobs in the Department of Defense (DoD), 53 of which require Senate confirmation.

These 239 Pentagon positions are among the most difficult in government. The hours are long, the pressures to keep America safe loom large, and the learning curve is enormous, especially for newcomers to national security. Just getting to the starting point for appointment to one of these positions requires the completion of mounds of disclosure forms, divestment of personal financial positions, and an often-grueling confirmation process and hearing. The reward? Confirmed individuals can look forward to being paid a fraction of what a talented executive makes in private industry.

So why would anyone be willing to serve in one of these jobs? Good question. Fortunately for America, some patriots are still willing. Given the enormous stakes involved, it is therefore in America’s overwhelming interest to encourage and select the absolute best individuals willing to serve in these positions, whoever they may be.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress and other advocacy groups are already mounting an effort to disqualify some of the most experienced and knowledgeable individuals from consideration for top DoD positions. These individuals’ transgression? Prior employment in the defense industry.

Earlier this month, Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) sent a letter imploring the next administration not to pick a defense secretary with any ties to the defense industry. Lee and Pocan point to former Trump defense officials such as defense secretaries Mark Esper and Jim Mattis as presumably tainted individuals who had strong ties to defense companies like Raytheon and General Dynamics. They caution that hiring individuals from the defense industry to top Pentagon roles will bring a “profiteering ethos.” Similarly, the Project on Government Oversight wrote that  Michèle Flournoy, the oft-discussed candidate to be the next secretary of defense, should not be considered due to her “extensive defense industry ties” and contended that bringing her to the Pentagon would be “toxic.”

Regrettably, this is not a new development. At Mark Esper’s 2019 confirmation hearing to be secretary of defense, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) hammered him for his ties to Raytheon and called upon him to recuse himself from all matters dealing with his former employer. She referred to his subsequent refusal to recuse himself  as “outrageous.” But as Raytheon is one of the top five defense companies in the U.S. and provides technology and services for a range of DoD programs, Esper would have been much less effective as secretary of defense if he had to recuse himself from all matters dealing with them.  It’s not just an issue for progressives either: three years ago the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) told the administration he did not want any more former defense executives nominated for key Pentagon posts. “I said I did not want people from the top five corporations,” McCain explained, “We’ve had a couple, and that’s okay, but I don’t want [more of] them.”

Critics of defense industry executives working in DoD speculate that these individuals will act to enrich their former pals, fail to hold them accountable, and overlook transgressions.

Except… there is zero evidence of such behavior. Indeed, you can search through history in vain for examples of Pentagon leaders who came from the defense industry who sought to favor these companies or handed them unwarranted lucrative deals. Instead, what you will find are numerous examples of former defense industry leaders relentlessly pushing big defense companies to reduce their prices and ensure the Pentagon receives a better-quality product.

Leaders like Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord or the Army’s acquisition secretary Bruce Jette are acknowledged to be effective because — and not in spite — of their defense industry experience. Each understands the needs of both industry and the Pentagon. Similarly using knowledge gained while working in defense companies, Army secretary Ryan McCarthy and defense secretary Mark Esper both acted decisively to put Army modernization on a firm path.

Moreover, there is a history of such performance by defense industry leaders. As secretary of defense from 1994-1996, William Perry was recognized for the strong leadership and management skills he brought to the Pentagon. Perry was one of Silicon Valley’s early entrepreneurs who founded a defense electronics company which grew to employ over 3,000 people. The New York Times reported that Perry “quickly restored order, discipline and morale, three qualities crucial to military effectiveness” following his arrival to the Pentagon.

Despite warnings of the inherent dangers of the “military industrial complex” (made famous in President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 speech), fielding an effective military today requires the closest possible collaboration between industry and the Pentagon. A hundred years ago, the military often invented its own tanks, designed its own ships, and built its own weapons. Those days are now long gone. Now the military depends on industry for nearly all aspects of military technology, from basic science all the way to manufacturing. To bring all this together, it needs savvy, experienced leaders who understand how to forge effective partnerships with industry in order to give America’s soldiers the competitive advantage they deserve.

If you desire a future Pentagon leader who has any experience in national security and you rule out those who have ever worked in the defense industry, what you are left with is a pool of lawyers, academics, and politicians. Not that there is anything wrong with those professions — but when you need someone to drive change in a two-million-person, $700 billion-plus bureaucracy, you typically need a skilled executive who has led in a large organization. The defense industry has many such leaders.

Finally, those who worry former defense executives who now work in the Pentagon might be tempted to conspire with industry simply have no concept of the level of scrutiny that accompanies every day in these leaders’ lives. Every decision, every calendar appointment, every speech is carefully screened and vetted for propriety and legality. Senior Pentagon officials almost never single-handedly make a decision on the awarding of contracts or prices; those actions are left to teams of experts.

Americans should want the very best individuals possible serving as the civilian leaders for our military. Oftentimes some of the most qualified leaders for those positions are those who have worked in the defense industry. Despite their corporate pedigree, these individuals have no less character and integrity than those who come from other professions. Categorically ruling them out from service in the Pentagon is a Bad Idea in National Security.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.

(Photo Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.)

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Thomas Spoehr, "Bad Idea: Excluding Qualified Leaders from Pentagon Service Because of Defense Industry Experience," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 1, 2020, last modified December 1, 2020, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-excluding-qualified-leaders-from-pentagon-service-because-of-defense-industry-experience/.