Who Will Be the Next Secretary of Defense?

Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy brief the press at the Pentagon, on January 5, 2012.

DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

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Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy brief the press at the Pentagon, on January 5, 2012.

Eyes are now on two Pentagon veterans and the current Air Force secretary, among others, as possible replacements for the outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. By Ben Watson

Following Monday’s surprise announcement from the White House, the Pentagon will soon be led by its fourth defense secretary since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Here’s a brief review of some of the names being tossed around as possible replacements for the soon-to-be-departing Chuck Hagel, who will leave office after less than two years on the job.

Ash Carter

Ashton Carter, 60, has already held the No. 2 and 3 jobs at the Pentagon, and he’s now a senior executive and member of the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age at the Markle Foundation, a private philanthropic organization based in New York City.

Carter is well known in Pentagon circles. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 1993 to 1996 establishing policy for America’s nuclear weapons and its interaction with former Soviet states.

A physicist with degrees from Yale and Oxford who is not afraid to speak bluntly, Carter is credited with speeding up the process of getting weapons to the battlefield. He led two major strategy reviews of U.S. national security policy—the Asia-Pacific pivot and the implementation of a cyber warfare strategy. He helped create manufacturing plans for the largest DOD program in history (the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) and the largest procurement in DOD history (the KC-X tanker).

From April 2009 to October 2011, he served as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics; and after that he became the Deputy Secretary of Defense until December 2013.

Carter was in the running to be the next defense secretary, but Obama passed on him for the top job in 2013, instead selecting Hagel. Obama personally asked Carter to stay on to help run the business side of the building, and he was believed to have done that job well. Carter was the architect behind the Pentagon’s successful acquisition reform project Better Buying Power, an initiative designed to get DOD more bang for its buck.

In public and private, Carter defended Hagel during his turbulent confirmation process. But there was never any chemistry between the two men, and the two locked horns during the government shutdown last fall. Some believed that Carter, who had the bureaucratic depth that Hagel lacked, felt dismissed by Hagel. Ultimately, Carter stepped down a few months later.

In the first days of the shutdown, the Pentagon furloughed the majority of its 800,000 civilian workers. Inside the building, Carter was upset that the decision to furlough workers was vetted through the Pentagon’s legal counsel, according to former Pentagon officials. But Hagel disagreed and in a meeting with top defense officials rebuked Carter’s decision by ordering the vast majority of the Pentagon’s civilian employees back to work.

Michèle Flournoy

Michèle Flournoy, 53, is the CEO and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.

A graduate of Harvard University before going on to study at Oxford, she served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from February 2009 to February 2012, where—as the Pentagon’s highest-ranking woman in the department’s history—she advised former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on national security and defense policy and National Security Council deliberations.

The daughter of a highly-decorated World War II veteran, Flournoy led the Pentagon’s formulation of its 2012 Strategic Guidance and represented the Defense Department during trips to Afghanistan, official visits overseas and at hearings before Congress. Flournoy also oversaw the administration’s responses to the crises in Yemen and Somalia, as well as advising on the Afghanistan drawdown and looming budget cuts facing the department in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. In June, she and CNAS’ Richard Fontaine wrote in Defense One about the dire need for bipartisan consensus on America’s national security policy—a topic that with today’s announcement from Hagel is arguably more central to the nation’s future and security than at any point in recent months. The Washington Post in 2011 called her a “centrist, but a supporter of the Democratic Party.” Flournoy has long been considered for the Pentagon’s top job, and would be the first woman to run the department. Her chances of getting the nod under a Hillary Clinton presidency are thought to be high. If she were named and the Democrat wins the White House next year, Flournoy would have enough time to make a significant difference at the Pentagon.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

Deborah Lee James, 55, is another possible candidate to replace Hagel, even if she is considered fairly new to the Pentagon.

James, a former top executive at Science Applications International Corp., has endeared herself to top administration officials and Capitol Hill and in recent months has positioned herself as an ambitious leader in the national security community who could vie for the Pentagon’s top job. 

James has received accolades for aggressively taking on the problems within her service’s nuclear ranks. And she’s considered tough: her nickname when she served as a senior staffer on the House Armed Services Committee was “Sledge,” since she took a “sledgehammer approach” to the job, according to a profile of her in The New York Times in February. 

And although James is not considered to have extensive experience in the Pentagon, she’s no newbie: James served in the Clinton administration as the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. And prior to that, she was Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. 

Office of Sen. Jack Reed

Sen. Jack Reed

Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, is close to Hagel, and has been in contact with him as the Obama administration weathered a spate of foreign policy crises from Ebola to the Islamic State. Like Hagel, Reed is also a Vietnam veteran, having served as an Army Ranger and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne after graduating from West Point. He retired from the Army Reserves in 1991.

Until the Democrats lost their majority in the midterm elections, Reed, 65, was in line to take over the gavel of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Retiring Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., endorsed Reed for the job last year, and he is known as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker and “strong on defense” Democrat with robust support from the defense industry.

Reed currently chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and also serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Just last week, Reed spoke briefly to Defense One about the way forward on national security in Congress. “One of the hallmarks of the committee has been a bipartisan approach to the problem—there are different conclusions but the approach has been very much bipartisan … and I believe, as Sen. McCain, does, that the issues of sequestration, issues of strategy versus budget, are important. I hope that if we do so [address those], it’ll be bipartisan.”

In recent weeks, Hagel has expressed his frustration with the White House over the strategy against the Islamic State, sending a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice in late October, which included his concerns over a lack of clarify over objectives, particularly regarding the Assad regime —all concerns Reed expressed as well.

But Reed said Monday that he is not interested in being considered for defense secretary. “He just asked the people of Rhode Island to hire him for another six year term and plans on honoring that commitment,” Reed spokesman Chip Unruh told Defense One.

Office of Sen. Tim Kaine

Sen. Tim Kaine

Tim Kaine, 56, was elected Democratic senator from Virginia in 2012 and is now a member of the Senate Armed Services, Budget and Foreign Relations Committees. He also serves as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Near East, South and Central Asian Affairs.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Kaine worked with Jesuit missionaries in the early 1980s before practicing law in Richmond, Va., for nearly two decades. Kaine was elected Virginia governor in 2006 and was one of Obama’s earliest supporters as a candidate—but the campaign against the Islamic State has reportedly strained that relationship.

In September, Kaine expressed his categorical support for the president’s direction to fight Islamic State militants, though he expressed concern that the president needed Congressional authority to move forward with U.S. military action against the militants in Iraq and Syria. Then in a discussion at the Wilson Center in November, the Virginia senator ratcheted up his opposition, calling the ISIS war that’s loomed like a dark cloud over Hagel’s recent tenure “illegal.”

Office of the Secretary of Defense

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work

Robert Work, 61, has been Deputy Defense Secretary since May. Work is the second CNAS alumni, along with Michele Flournoy, whose name has been thrown into the hat as a possible replacement for Hagel.

Work has been a steady voice in the Pentagon’s dismay toward the fiscal constraints of sequestration, having served previously as the Under Secretary of the Navy from May 2009 to March 2013. He was also on Obama’s DOD transition team, taking charge of issues affecting the Navy, as well as advising broader defense policy, acquisition and budget teams for the president. No stranger to the Pentagon at a time of enormous transition, Work was a senior fellow for maritime affairs at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments beginning in 2002 before later moving on to vice president for strategic studies there.

A Marine Corps veteran with nearly three decades of service behind him, Work has taught defense and military issues as an adjunct professor at George Washington University. Although he is highly-regarded in national security circles, he is seen as effective in his current job and is not necessarily seen as taking on a leading man role. Still, as the Pentagon’s No. 2, he would be under consideration for the top job.

Office of Sen. Carl Levin

Sen. Carl Levin

Democrat Carl Levin, 80, has served as a senator since 1979. In March, he announced that he would not seek a seventh term—creating a vacancy at the Senate Armed Services Committee chair, where he’s been the ranking Democrat on the committee since 1997. Like Reed, Levin is said to be close Hagel.

Levin attended Harvard Law School. He then went on to practice in the state of Michigan while also teaching law at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Mercy before being elected to the Detroit City Council in 1968—where he served until he won election to the Senate.

Levin supported the war in Afghanistan but opposed congressional authorization for the war in Iraq in 2003.

Asked to speculate about future cabinet positions or any future roles in government service, Levin told reporters, “I’m going home.”

Gordon Lubold, Marcus Weisgerber and Molly O’Toole contributed to this report. 

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