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Hollowed-Out Pentagon Brass Braces for Major Role in Combating Coronavirus

Major General Michael T. McGuire, the Director of the State of Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) is looking as members of DEMA work responding to the coronavirus pandemic, Phoenix, March 18, 2020.

As U.S. President Donald Trump and government leaders across the country turn to the military to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon is short several highly important leadership positions that are being filled with temporary appointments of “acting” brass.

Trump has boasted of lavishing massive amounts of funding on rebuilding the military and making it an unrivaled superpower. But simultaneously, sluggish attempts by the administration and the Senate to fill civilian leadership posts have hollowed out the Pentagon's management.

“The Pentagon is attriting faster than it can fill positions,” a former senior defense official told VOA, adding that COVID-19 is “sure to further squeeze the [vacancy] situation.”

Number of Senate-Approved Vacancies in the Department of Defense.
Number of Senate-Approved Vacancies in the Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense is providing masks and ventilators from its reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Air Force is shuttling virus testing kits to high-need areas. At least 1,500 National Guardsmen in 22 states are providing support needs ranging from disinfecting to meal delivery.

And Trump on Wednesday announced that the Navy’s two massive hospital ships would deploy to New York Harbor and somewhere yet to be determined on the West Coast.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that the 1,000-bed ships could provide additional space and treatment for trauma patients as coronavirus victims use local hospital beds.

Yet as more decisions keep popping up concerning the military’s response to the highly-infectious coronavirus, many of the Pentagon’s civilian decision makers have not been appointed, with numerous vacancies in key positions or temporary appointments of “acting” brass expected to remain high due to both the COVID-19 outbreak and a shortened, election year schedule on Capitol Hill.

The Pentagon still needs to fill about one third of its 60 senior civilian posts, which require Senate confirmation.

“These vacancies continue to challenge the department's ability to effectively respond to national security challenges and undermine civilian inputs into the decision-making process,” Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Service Committee, said at a hearing this month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, boards a subway car on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, before a vote on a coronavirus response bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, boards a subway car on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, before a vote on a coronavirus response bill.

Among the 21 vacancies are the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Under Secretary of Defense – Comptroller, Secretary of the Navy and Under Secretary of the Army.

The recent resignation of John Rood, who expressed in his resignation letter that he felt pushed out as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, left a total of seven vacancies in the policy directorate alone.

And 13 of the vacancies--nearly 25% of the Pentagon’s Senate confirmed posts--have no official White House announcement of an intended nominee. Two of these are for civilian leadership in space policy and acquisitions, portfolios touted as high-priority in an administration that built a new Space Command and helped create a new military service branch, the Space Force, last year.

“What we're working on is to make sure that we establish a [space defense] system that we're going to want to live with. We are working to build that entire system before we [select] an individual in that spot,” Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett told reporters last week when asked about one of the vacant space defense posts.

Esper seemed unconcerned while testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month.

“These are long processes,” Esper said. "I don’t think the situation is as dire as some may think.”

Five of the 21 vacancies have nominees who have already completed a Senate hearing and are awaiting a vote, including three nominees who testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Tuesday.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma described the hearing as a “rare time” when “there’s no opposition” to any of the three nominees, but admitted that even with favorable candidates, “it took forever to get the information that we [the Senate] needed.”

“I’ll have to blame the White House on this,” added Inhofe, who normally speaks in favor of the administration.

The lack of permanent, non-“acting” leadership could become more of a concern as the election nears—especially if there are military mishaps.

The Trump administration’s vetting process for the Department of Defense’s civilian nominees has been incredibly slow. The process of one former senior defense official confirmed in 2017 took 10 months from the initial job interview until hiring.

Nominee selection continues to be further impaired by the decrease in applicable candidates due to the administration’s desire to keep out “never Trumpers,” according to the former senior defense official.

And in an election year filled with several weeks of Senate recesses, time is tight for getting confirmation votes on the calendar.