Acting U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, June 27, 2019.

Acting U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, June 27, 2019. Virginia Mayo/AP

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Lawmaker: Human Problem at Pentagon Worse than Tech Problem

Rep. Jim Cooper says Congress shouldn’t accept a government topped by acting political appointees.

U.S. defense leaders often lament the difficulty of attracting commercial technology firms to work with the military to solve complicated challenges. But right now, with roughly half of its top leadership billets occupied by temps, the Pentagon has a people problem.

“For all of our love of technology, we could have a greater human problem than we do a tech problem, because you need Senate-confirmed people of ability, competence and vision,” Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said Thursday at the Defense One Tech Summit.

The position of Defense Secretary has been vacant since December, when Jim Mattis abruptly resigned. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan served in an acting capacity for nearly six months, the longest time that the Pentagon has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader. President Trump said he would nominate Shanahan for the position, but Shanahan withdrew his name from consideration and resigned as deputy defense secretary last week after details of a messy divorce became public.

Army Secretary Mark Esper is now the acting defense secretary. David Norquist, the Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer has been performing the duties of the deputy defense secretary since Mattis’ departure. Ryan McCarthy, the Army undersecretary is now the acting Army secretary. 

“You can’t have a government with ‘actings’…and that’s sadly what we increasingly have,” Cooper said. “Our tolerance for that should be zero.”

On June 21, President Trump said that he would nominate Esper, Norquist, and McCarthy to serve permanently. The White House has yet to send those nominations to Congress.

Heather Wilson stepped down as Air Force secretary last month to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Trump has said he would nominate Barbara Barrett for the top Air Force job, but the White House has yet to send a formal nomination to Congress.

Moving further down the chain, the vacancies and lack of political appointees has created a dominos effect where deputies are serving as principals. Below that, many underlings have essentially moved up one rung on the org chat. The Pentagon has an acting chief management officer since last year when Mattis dismissed John Gibson. 

The lack of key leaders even extends beyond Senate-confirmable positions. Fred Kennedy, head the brand new Space Development Agency, abruptly resigned over reported disagreements with his boss Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. InsideDefense reports that Derek Tournear, who works for Griffin, has been named acting director of the organization tasked with making satellite buying more commercial.

Chris Shank, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office, the office known for modifying existing weapons with new capabilities, resigned on June 14, Breaking Defense reports. David Honey, a senior Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency official, has been tapped as his replacement, InsideDefense reports.