Major Power Shift Underway at Pentagon as Army Leaders Step Up

Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts the 243rd Army Birthday cake cutting ceremony at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., June 14, 2018. (U.S. Army/Daniel Torok)
Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts the 243rd Army Birthday cake cutting ceremony at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., June 14, 2018. (U.S. Army/Daniel Torok)

President Trump's tweet on Tuesday that Army Secretary Mark Esper will take over as acting Pentagon chief could mean a dramatically altered power landscape in the U.S. military, with Army leaders in charge of the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Department.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has opted not to continue his pursuit of nomination, Trump tweeted. The news came after reports surfaced of an FBI investigation into two reportedly violent domestic episodes in 2010 and 2011.

Details are still being worked out, but Esper's departure will most likely mean Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy will take over as acting secretary of the Army, a Defense Department official told Tuesday.

For now, the Army does not have an official comment and has referred questions to the White House, but behind the scenes, Army officials are scrambling to work with Shanahan's office to draft a transition plan, which could have Esper in the job by June 21, the defense official said.

It's too early to tell if Esper's new post will be permanent, but the newest change will mean that the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley, the Army's current chief of staff, and Esper will be working very closely again with McCarthy and Gen. James McConville, the Army's vice chief of staff who has been confirmed to take over for Milley as Army chief of staff.

The Army's sudden surge in dominance at the Pentagon will represent a dramatic change from just one year ago when many top billets were held by Marines, with retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis serving as Pentagon chief alongside Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Mattis resigned in December and Dunford is scheduled to step down from the post at the conclusion of his second term in September.

The shift also means a quartet of leaders who have collaborated on the same Army priorities are now moving up.

Since Esper took over as Army secretary in November 2017, all four rising service leaders have formed an extremely focused team to push the Army's new modernization strategy forward.

"The nice thing about that team, even though two of the four are now leaving, they really integrated themselves into sort of a mind-meld ... I have been to a number of briefings where literally all four of them were literally present and finishing each other's sentences," Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"So, I think that probably more than any other service to have that four-man team makes sort of a smooth transition in this kind of a situation."

O'Hanlon noted that "this is pretty unusual that you have two guys coming out of the same service to take the two top jobs" in the U.S. military.

"You will have both Milley and Esper, who have been teammates in the Army and now teammates at the top. And they have a very good working relationship and personal chemistry and that bodes well. Unless you are a person in the Air Force or Navy that feel like that is going to make them more effective at crowding you out or shunting you aside. But I don't think that is the way that they work," O'Hanlon said.

"I don't think that is a major concern because I think Milley and Esper are quite fair-minded."

Mark Cancian, a senior advisor for the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged that the power dynamic is changing at the Pentagon.

"Before it was the Marines and now it's the Army," he said. But was quick to point out that these "senior officials are very careful not to lean one way or the other."

"When you look back at the time when Mattis and Dunford were in charge, it's hard to look back and say 'Ah, there is a place where ... they favored the Marine Corps.'"

Cancian, however, did say that these changes in leadership will create more turbulence in the Pentagon.

"Everybody is moving ... the Joint Staff is changing ... the secretary of defense is changing, again, and the Army leadership is changing," Cancian said. "You look at it -- the entire leadership is in flux, and that is and that is likely to have much more of an effect."

McCarthy served once before as acting Army secretary, from August 1 to November 16, 2017. He has been a driving force and often the public face to the Army's modernization strategy, a bold effort to replace all of the service's major weapons systems by 2028.

Prior to his confirmation as undersecretary, McCarthy worked for Lockheed Martin Corporation on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, according to his official biography.

McCarthy also served in the 75th Ranger Regiment from 1997 to 2002 and deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Before taking over as Army secretary in 2017, Esper spent seven years working as the vice president for Government Relations at Raytheon Company, according to his official bio.

A retired infantry officer, Esper is a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and deployed to the 1990-1991 Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division.

Both O'Hanlon and Cancian described Trump's pick of Esper to lead the Pentagon as a solid choice.

Cancian pointed out that Esper gained respect for leading an effort in the fiscal 2020 budget process to cut or kill 186 Army programs in order to find more than $30 billion in the Army's budget for the service's ambitious modernization effort. It was a tedious process that became known as "night court" because of the nightly sessions Army leaders conducted to review every Army program.

"Esper got very good reviews; he got a lot of praise for night court," Cancian said. "Everybody in town knows about night court and the Army's efforts to realign its programs to the new strategy.

"I think he's a good pick."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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