WASHINGTON — Jennifer Santos, the U.S. Defense Department’s primary liaison to the defense industry and a key player in the department’s COVID-19 response, is departing as head of industrial policy to take a new role with the Navy, the Pentagon has confirmed to Defense News.

Santos took over the role of deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy in June 2019, after Eric Chewning was tapped to be chief of staff for then-acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan.

In that role, she served as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord’s principal advisor for analyzing the capabilities, overall health and policies concerning the industrial base. She also shaped policy on business combinations and transactions, both foreign and domestic, that impact national security.

“The Department can confirm that Ms. Jennifer Santos is moving from her current position as the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy to the Department of the Navy working with Mr. James ‘Hondo’ Guerts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition to support critical projects," Pentagon spokesman Mike Andrews said in a statement.

“The department’s commitment to closely partnering with the defense industry remains unwavering, and we will continue to identify and mitigate impacts from the COVID-19 national emergency to ensure readiness and modernization,” he added.

Scott Baum, the current principal director for industrial policy, will take over as acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy.

Before joining the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Santos spent two years working defense programs for Cypress International, a business consultancy group. Prior to that job, she spent five and a half years working for the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense.

In normal times, the industrial policy job is relatively low profile outside of the defense industry. But Santos was forced into a more public-facing role in the last two months as a key player in the Pentagon’s COVID-19 response.

The industrial policy job has oversight of the Defense Production Act, which has emerged as a major tool for procuring needed medical supplies. Santos was the point person for issuing more than 20 pieces of guidance to industry on issues such as increased early payments, whether companies can receive repayment for keeping workers on the payroll while shut down, and the implementation of the coronavirus relief legislation known as the CARES Act.

Since the Department of Defense launched its coronavirus response task force, Santos and Kim Herrington, the director for defense pricing and contracting, “played key roles in really productive daily engagements with industry,” Lord told reporters in March.

Santos and the DoD’s industrial policy team led three to four industry calls per week with 18 associations representing more than 3 million companies, Lord said in April. At the time, Lord said she was “proud of the department’s responsiveness in addressing defense industry concerns outlined during these calls.”

Santos’ departure leaves another empty seat in the Pentagon, albeit not one requiring confirmation by the Senate.

Industry, by multiple accounts, was pleased to have a constantly flowing conduit to the Pentagon in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and word of her departure was a surprise. National Defense Industrial Association Vice Chair Arnold Punaro praised Santos.

“From the perspective of our industry and the National Defense Industrial Association, she has been very supportive to industry,” Punaro said. “All of the acquisition system ― the organizations people believe to be ‘Dr. No’s’ of the Defense Department have actually bent over backwards to protect the industry. In all the years I have been doing this, I have never seen a better approach.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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.

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