WASHINGTON — Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy could stay on as the service’s top civilian for as long as one year under the Biden administration, several people close to the president-elect’s transition team told Defense News.
The move, if it happens, would likely make McCarthy the rare political official from the Trump team expected to be held over in the Biden administration. The decision is still under consideration.
While political appointees tender their resignations at the start of a new administration, it is not uncommon, particularly at the Defense Department, for certain officials to be kept on in order to ensure continuity of operations. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, an Obama appointee, stayed in place as the department’s No. 2 for the first six months of the Trump administration, for example.
While a Trump appointee, McCarthy is seen in defense circles as a textbook, pro-defense Republican, one who served as a special assistant to former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and worked on the House Committee on International Relations. He also served as Lockheed Martin’s vice president for sustainment on the F-35 program.
Originally confirmed as undersecretary of the Army, McCarthy twice served as the service’s acting secretary: first in 2017 when several nominees for the job failed to advance, and then in 2019 when Mark Esper, then serving as Army secretary, was boosted to secretary of defense.
“Ryan McCarthy is well regarded,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told Defense News. “His background as a soldier may help, because he got into this field in a nonpartisan way. Also, he worked in previous administrations so therefore isn’t seen as just a Trump guy ... I think he has been effective and non-polemical and smart. He’d be a great choice to keep on.”
Generally, it is helpful to keep an individual on in a leadership position from one administration to another, “unless they are ideologically at odds,” Ret. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said to Defense News.
“Secretary Ryan McCarthy has been an effective Army secretary. He has pushed numerous initiatives, most notably in Army modernization. If a Biden administration opted to keep Secretary McCarthy on the job, even if it was just until the new administration had a replacement confirmed, it would be helpful for the Army.”
The Army did not respond to a request for comment.
Keeping McCarthy would come with the added benefit of ensuring continuity of leadership from a team that radically transformed the service, over a short period of time.
Those who closely follow the service have called the team of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Vice Chief Gen. James McConville, Esper and McCarthy a sort of dream team, a fateful meeting of several unique minds and personalities at the top.
The leadership team was able to, in record time, launch a new warfighting concept that is now being adopted across all of the services; drastically improve force readiness; and stand up a brand new four-star command to rapidly modernize.
With Milley continuing on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Esper moving into the defense secretary role, McConville assuming the role of Army chief and McCarthy becoming Army secretary, the team stayed close at the top.
Think tankers, policy wonks, lawmakers and even some inside the Defense Department have wondered if the success in launching a disruptive new command has been dependent on the specific leadership at the time of its inception and whether that can survive different leadership down the road.
“The Army would benefit from additional continuity in the Secretary position. Keeping him allows the current Army vision and campaign plans to continue,” Spoehr said. “We have seen the downside of frequent service secretary turn-over with the frequent transitions in the Navy Secretary position.”
A new leadership team leaves a young organization, such as Futures Command, vulnerable to a shake-up as its success in the early years is scrutinized by fresh eyes. Much of AFC’s accomplishments are only in the nascent stages.
While many praised the Army for a bold move such as starting Futures Command, its creation was also tempered with skepticism that another new layer of bureaucracy would solve the problems the Army had with agile development and the fielding of new capabilities. Lawmakers worried at the outset that the establishment of a new command would duplicate the role of Army staff and could create long-term risk to civilian control of the acquisition system.
McCarthy was often front-and-center, likely more than any other Army leader, defending and promoting AFC. Last month, McCarthy signed a modernization directive that some see as handing over more power to AFC to acquire capability and away from its civilian-led acquisition branch.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.