President Trump will nominate Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for Deputy Defense Secretary, one of six key Pentagon appointments announced today. All six have extensive service in government or, in Shanahan’s case, the defense industry. That’s a stark departure from the two billionaires with no prior government service Trump initially picked as secretaries of the Army and Navy, Vincent Viola and Philip Bilden, both of whom withdrew.
In contrast to several earlier nominations, the White House made clear these were people picked by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, saying they “were personally recommended by Secretary Mattis to the President for nomination.” The very different backgrounds of these picks suggests Mattis has persuaded a chastened Trump team to seek experienced hands instead of swamp-draining outsiders.
The deputy position is all-important since the deputy traditionally runs the building on a day-to-day basis and is usually point man for big budget and acquisition decisions. It’s difficult not to read this as a major victory for Boeing, especially given Trump’s repeated criticism of Air Force One. You can be sure Lockheed will read this as a possible blow to the F-35 program. But Shanahan will be under such tight scrutiny, given where he’s come from, that it’s not likely he’d make any final decisions about the F-18 or the F-35, since he’d be sure to face ethics and conflict of interest charges.
It will be very interesting to see how top Senate defense lawmaker John McCain, who repeatedly lambasted Boeing during the airborne tanker wars, approaches the idea of a senior defense leader stepping directly into the second most powerful job at the Pentagon. McCain has traditionally been leery of defense executives stepping directly from industry to a Pentagon job.
Shanahan is arguably Boeing’s top line manager. He became senior vice president for supply chain & operations last April, reporting directly to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. He oversaw the company’s manufacturing and suppliers, a crucial task for a company that thought its Black Diamond advanced manufacturing center could tip the balance in its favor for what became the B-21 project. Shanahan also led the 787 program during a crucial period, helping to right the teetering project.
Shanahan would replace Bob Work, the highest ranking holdover from the Obama administration and chief architect of the Pentagon’s high-tech Third Offset Strategy.
He’s an engineer who’s spent almost his entire adult life — since 1986 — at Boeing, working on everything from commercial airliners and military systems from attack helicopters to missiles, from tilt-rotors to lasers. His skills at managing large, complex technical programs on a budget should come in handy at the Pentagon. Shanahan should complement Mattis, who has extensive experience as a strategic leader, commander and warrior-diplomat but has little experience in the Pentagon’s extensive acquisition enterprise.
Note: Other appointees include David Norquist, Elain McCusker, Robert Daigle, David Trachtenberg and Kenneth Rapuano.