WASHINGTON — With the shock waves of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' announcement Thursday that he will be leaving the Pentagon, speculation is well underway as to who will replace him.
And should a new secretary of defense not be named and confirmed by the end of February — hardly a given, based on the Trump administration’s history of getting nominees through the Senate — a little known figure outside of national security and aviation circles could suddenly find himself elevated to the head of the Department of Defense.
Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who popped up as a surprise choice for deputy secretary of defense in early 2017, has spent the last year focused on reforming the internal processes of the Pentagon.
While flashier names will undoubtedly present themselves as options for the now-vacant role, it is possible that Shanahan could be tapped by President Donald Trump to the full secretary job. Two sources with knowledge of discussions said Shanahan’s name will likely be on any list of contenders, but could not say how serious a candidate the deputy might be.
A third source, this one close to Shanahan, said the deputy has “never aspired” to the top job, but wouldn’t rule the option out.
“He’s not a policy or geopolitics guy. He’s a business guy,” the source said. “But he’s spent the last year learning from the best. And Shanahan is known for having a good relationship” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
If Shanahan ends up taking a job promotion, whether it be to secretary of another role — he has denied interest in taking over at OMB should Mick Mulvaney become the permanent chief of staff for Trump — it’s worth asking the question: just who is Patrick Shanahan?
In October, Defense News sat down with Shanahan and asked him to lay out his vision of the department’s future and how to get there.
Specifically challenged on what his equivalent to his predecessor’s “Third Offset” idea would be, Shanahan said he believes his job is to “operationalize” the National Defense Strategy, “driving systemic change — rewiring the organization to increase our performance on lethality, alliances, and reform.”
“Too often we focus on process, or budget, or level of effort,” Shanahan told Defense News. “The Pentagon should focus on outcomes and outputs — our performance. This focus on performance should drive us to field unmatched lethality, execute on our modernization plans and achieve this affordably.”
“It's all about the system and then the reinforcing mechanisms to make that change enduring. Without a system, things fall apart when the leader moves on,” Shanahan noted. “The system or the environment shouldn't be dependent on the leader's presence.”
“It’s very easy in a complex environment like this to get distracted. The tactical can consume an enormous amount of time,” he said. “But my job is really to drive change at scale and there’s a formula for doing that. And the formula really has to do with change [which] must be systemic.”
If there is indeed a formula, Pentagon watchers are keeping a close eye for signs of its impact. Shanahan has said in the past the fiscal 2020 budget will be the Trump administration’s “masterpiece” and set the stage for the future of the Defense Department, in line with Mattis’ National Defense Strategy.
“We’ll know a lot more once that FY20 budget request drops and we can see how effective he was,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s a fair time to render judgement.”
On day one, Shanahan says, he had two things to focus on: figuring out what long-lead modernization issues had to be addressed, and dealing with the situations in the Middle East and North Korea. The latter was at its hottest point, with Shanahan’s formal swearing in happening just days after Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury.”
Once the immediate fires were at least calmed down, Shanahan turned his eyes internally, starting with changing how the department handles IT. That included bringing in Dana Deasy to manage the cloud integration and a greater push on updating the department’s backroom technology — a push that hasn’t netted the early results Shanahan could have hoped for.
“Now we’ve got those things underway, I wanted to make sure the foundation was laid for IT. That was the most important” step, Shanahan said. And while he is “over the moon happy” with changes to U.S. Cyber Command, “I’m super frustrated that we can’t go faster on basic things like the cloud.”
“There isn’t anybody intentionally standing on the air hose, but government procurement is very deliberate. And so there’s a number of those [issues] that we have to refine. I wish that would go faster,” he added.
Harrison describes Shanahan’s projects as focused on “internal efficiency.”
“His focus seems to have been on back office of the Pentagon and trying to make some of those business processes work better, but also coming up with business-like metrics for operations,” Harrison noted, pointing to the push to get above 80 percent mission capable on key aircraft as the kind of hard-data project the deputy seems to gravitate towards.
A through-line for all Shanahan’s procurement discussions appears to be getting rid of duplicative systems — for example, situations where the Army and Air Force both have a need for a similar system and develop unique solutions on their own, rather than joining up and creating a single system that can be used department-wide.
That matters both in focused areas, such as getting all the health IT systems talking to one another or consolidating duplicative back-office functions within a single office or service to save costs, and more broadly across the entire department.
But traditionally, the services have resisted being forced into one-size-fits-all procurement strategies. Asked how that gets solved, Shanahan said the answer rests with “relationships,” both among the services and up to his office.
He points to Army Futures Command head Gen. John Murray as an example, saying Murray is “going to have the acquisition responsibility, but what we’re going to do as a department is agree that he’s going to use these interfaces and standards.
“What’s happened in the past is they’ll have a need date and we’ll have not been responsive to giving them what they need, and so they have to move out by virtue of the schedule that they committed to. That’s the horizontal play that we’ve got to work to here in the department. If we get that, then we’re joint beyond anybody’s wildest dream.”
And perhaps the biggest test case for making sure everyone in the department is on the same page is what may end up defining Shanahan’s time in the building: the development of Trump’s sought after Space Force.
Shanahan has the lead inside the building on developing the new space structure, and as he talks about his vision for the setup, it’s less about space capabilities themselves and more about making sure everyone is talking to everyone else in the same language.
“The people that are going to do space development, their principle job is to ensure horizontal integration across the department. It’s less about the space mission than it is this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive standards and integration,” Shanahan said. “This isn’t technology. This is about the network.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone in the Pentagon is on board with Shanahan’s style.
Several officials with first-hand exposure to Shanahan told Defense News they feel the deputy is too focused on having meetings, sucking up staff time without having many concrete victories to point to.
The officials also described Shanahan as having a sometimes combative personality. The deputy has reportedly clashed with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and was allegedly a driving force in the firing of Chief Management Officer Jay Gibson after only nine months on the job. He also reportedly was not particularly close with Mattis.
Asked about criticisms in an email followup to the interview, Shanahan downplayed them as “completely normal and expected with instituting systemic change.”
“It is also natural that people are defensive when leaders begin focusing on performance rather than process,” he wrote.
Asked what he would say to complaints his initiatives have yet to produce major shifts, Shanahan expressed confidence that at the end of the day, results would be evident.
“In any large organization, successful change requires rewiring and retooling systems. These are not quick fixes, and take time to produce results, but it is only way to produce lasting change at scale,” he wrote.
“In the end, the question will be: ‘Did we implement the National Defense Strategy?’ The NDS is our plan, now we are assessing performance of the enterprise against that plan, and rewiring the systems to enable improved, long-term performance.”
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.