WASHINGTON ― Eight months into President Joe Biden’s first year as commander-in-chief, he’s making good on a campaign pledge to form an administration that would “look like America,” selecting for the Defense Department top officials meant to reflect the country’s diversity.
Recent weeks saw two LGBTQ women confirmed to top military positions. Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones is the first out lesbian to serve as undersecretary of a military branch, while Shawn Skelly, the assistant secretary of defense for readiness, is the first out transgender person in the job and highest-ranking out transgender defense official in U.S. history.
While Trump administration Pentagon nominees were overwhelmingly white and male, the Biden administration says 54% of its national security nominees ― to the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development ― are women, 40% are people of color, and at least 7% identify as LGBTQ. At the Pentagon alone, 55% of political appointees are women, about 46% are people of color and more than 10% identify as LGBTQ.
Biden’s appointments include the first African-American defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; the first woman confirmed by the Senate as deputy defense secretary, Kathleen Hicks; and the first woman confirmed as Army secretary, Christine Wormuth.
“Secretary Austin is proud to lead a diverse team of public servants and national security experts who reflect the breadth of America,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement. “Our most strategic asset is our people, and the Secretary will continue building a team that represents the best of us.”
In his first days, Biden made headlines with a historically diverse Cabinet, after facing pressure to tap more Black and Latino nominees for high-level jobs. Allies say he has continued to name accomplished people from historically underrepresented communities to key government positions.
“By and large, the administration has done an excellent job in identifying highly qualified candidates and also being sensitive to diversity,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. “In the past, one might have been sacrificed to the other, but I think I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the candidates coming up and also the fact that we’ve got a range of Americans from different backgrounds ― racial, ethnic and otherwise.”
When it comes to the nominees’ resumes, however, some progressives are criticizing Biden as they (and the late Sen. John McCain) did President Donald Trump for choosing too many officials with ties to the defense industry. Austin, for instance, sat on the board of Raytheon Technologies, while his predecessor during the Trump administration, Mark Esper, was the defense contractor’s chief lobbyist.
Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., lifted her hold on two of Biden’s defense nominees after she extracted a pledge they will wait four years after leaving office to take industry jobs ― which helped clear a significant logjam. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, both of whom were executives at Raytheon earlier in their careers, each agreed to extend their ethics agreements and industry recusals beyond the required two years.
“I’m concerned overall about the revolving door between the defense industry and the Department of Defense,” Warren, a SASC member, told Defense News. “The Department of Defense spends hundreds of billions of dollars with the companies that too many Department of Defense officials represented in the past and may be looking towards representing in the future.”
Warren won a similar pledge from Austin, but it hasn’t tamped down a legislative push to increase the requirement as a means to limit contractor influence on the military.
“It is important to me that we get stronger ethics guidelines in place, as a minimum standard to reassure the American people that the people who work at the Department of Defense are thinking only about the Department of Defense and not their future,” she said.
(The comments came a few days before Biden nominated veteran Warren staffer Sasha Baker, now with Biden’s National Security Council, to the Pentagon’s No. 2 policy job. )
As of Wednesday, when the Senate adjourned for its August recess, it had confirmed 22 presidential appointees to the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration, including 12 women and 10 men. Overall, Biden has outpaced Trump, who’d seen 14 such officials confirmed by this point four years ago, but he lags President Barack Obama, who had 23 ― excluding holdover Defense Secretary Bob Gates.
Overall, two-thirds of the 62 Senate-confirmable Pentagon positions have yet to be filled. Twelve nominees are waiting for action in the Senate, and Biden has yet to name nominees to 22 Pentagon openings, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s tracker.
Beyond Biden’s diversity goals, he and Senate Democrats met another milestone over the weekend in emplacing Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, his third of three service secretaries. A Cuban-American immigrant, retired Navy commander and defense industry executive, Del Toro voiced strong support for a 355-ship Navy, but also acknowledged reaching that goal will require “additional resources” from Congress in coming years.
Austin said Del Toro “understands firsthand the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing our Navy, from addressing the pacing challenge of China and modernizing our capabilities, to investing in our most valuable asset — our people.”
The service secretary confirmations are seen as a key step as the defense secretary receives the services’ 2023 budget proposals and readies the department’s five-year budget projections.
Had Del Toro not been confirmed, the Navy would have been at a disadvantage during inter-service jockeying, according to National Defense Industrial Association board chairman Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director.
“As capable as many people acting in those roles may be, there are certain legal requirements and authorities they can’t exercise,” Punaro said. “Those things have to be kicked upstairs, and it slows the process down.”
With the confirmations of Del Toro and, on Wednesday, former Rep. Gil Cisneros for Pentagon personnel policy chief, DoD’s next major gap is in acquisition leadership.
The nominee for DoD’s top acquisition role, Michael Brown, withdrew this month, and Biden has not announced a replacement. Openings remain for assistant secretary for acquisition as well as for the lead officials for industrial policy ― and energy, environment and logistics.
“For an area where the department spends one of the largest amounts of money, a lot of the Biden Senate-confirmable people are not on board, and [the administration] should accelerate,” Punaro said.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.