Esper Pledges 'Tough Decisions' on China, Russia if Confirmed as Defense Secretary

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters on a government aircraft en route to Brussels, Belgium, June 25, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters on a government aircraft en route to Brussels, Belgium, June 25, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Army Secretary Mark Esper pledged Tuesday that he would be a defense secretary prepared to make the "tough decisions" on confronting China and Russia while balancing the readiness of the force against modernization.

"The goal is to deter war," Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing. "Our adversaries must see diplomacy as their best option, because war with the United States will force them to bear enormous costs."

He cited experience as his main qualification for the job. There has not been a Senate-confirmed defense secretary since former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in December in a policy dispute with President Donald Trump.

Esper noted his 21 years in the Army, where he retired as a lieutenant colonel; his nearly two years serving as Army secretary; and his background in the corporate sector, where he was the top lobbyist for defense firm Raytheon Co.

If confirmed, Esper said that one of his "personal priorities" would be improving the living standards of military families.

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"I understand very well the impact that issues such as housing, child care and spousal employment have on the readiness of our service members," he said.

Esper went before the committee as the Army secretary, having stepped down as acting defense secretary on Monday under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which bars an official secretary from succeeding to the permanent post.

"Although I have served 22 days as the acting secretary of defense, today I appear before you as the secretary of the Army in accordance with the Vacancy Act," he said.

While the Senate considers Esper's nomination, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer has temporarily taken over as acting defense secretary.

This story will be updated.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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