WASHINGTON — Following a smooth confirmation hearing, it appears Kathleen Hicks is headed to the Pentagon.
As had been expected, Hicks, the nominee to be deputy secretary of defense for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, received little in the way of pushback from senators. A significant number of them — including outgoing Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and his successor, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. — indicated they would support her nomination out of the committee.
The hearing, which lasted more than three hours, gave insight into how Hicks would approach a number of key issues for the Defense Department if she arrives in office.
Hicks is open to changing budget traditions to drive joint activity. It is commonly accepted in defense circles that the Pentagon’s budget will be flat at best, if not declining, in the coming years. That led to a number of questions from senators about how to drive reforms and find savings for the department.
Hicks said the incentive structure must change, particularly for general officer- and senior civilian-level hires, in order to focus on joint impacts.
A service that has “given up the capacity or the capability often believes that they will lose out overall, and the incentive structure is built around budget share. We should make clear always from a leadership perspective that the incentive is about serving the joint war fighter,” she said. “So the incentives start around promotion, but they also include how we keep the money, if you will, oriented towards services who are putting forward good ideas, even if those good ideas seem to go against a vested interest.”
Hicks later committed to looking at “pass through” funding included in the Air Force budget each year. That money, which can account for as much as 20 percent of the service’s budget request, goes to other government organizations and has for years been a thorn in the side of Air Force advocates, who argue it leads to the service having a smaller budget than the Army and Navy.
The Navy’s shipbuilding plan may get changed. The Trump administration delivered a long-awaited shipbuilding plan to Congress toward the end of 2020, one that was met with a skeptical eye from outside analysts who questioned some of the baked-in assumptions. Hicks, it seems, falls into that camp, although she said the broad structure is likely correct.
“There’s some really interesting operational themes that I’m attracted to: There’s a focus on increasing use of autonomy, there’s a focus on dispersal of forces and there’s a focus on growing the number of small surface combatants relative to today,” Hicks said. “But there are some things in that unclassified report, as I mentioned to you, that I saw as flags. There’s an indication that the information in there would require further analysis to validate the numbers.”
Hicks said she would hope to work quickly once Navy leadership is in place on developing the Biden administration’s plan.
Focusing just on allied defense spending misses the point. President Donald Trump often focused his personal ire on allied nations who were not spending as much on defense as he would like. While NATO, with its pledge for countries to spend 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product on defense, was an early and common target, Japan and South Korea also drew his ire over the last four years.
Hicks said she watched that with “concern,” noting that the focus purely on spending would impact how other nations work with the U.S. She believes the Biden administration will work to smooth over tensions around burden-sharing.
“We should always be focused on burden-sharing, ensuring that allies fulfill their commitments. But when it becomes that tactical issue that overrides the strategic value of the alliances, alliances that the Chinese and Russians could only hope to match ... if we get to that point, we have become astrategic,” Hicks said.
“We need to make sure that we’re taking a strategic approach to what commitment means,” she added. “I think we need to make sure that allies are as into the security relationship as we are. Sometimes it’s through spending. Sometimes it’s through defense spending. And sometimes that commitment is expressed in other ways, and I think we should be strategic about how we consider those commitments.”
Because of Austin’s recusals, she’ll be the point person on any Raytheon projects. Prior to assuming office, Austin served on the board of defense giant Raytheon Technologies. During his confirmation process, he pledged to recuse himself, if at all possible, from any decisions related to Raytheon while serving as defense secretary. That means Hicks will be the highest-ranking voice on programmatic decisions regarding two key nuclear capabilities: the replacement program for America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD; and the Long Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO, a nuclear cruise missile.
In her written answers to members, Hicks noted she would likely end up running programmatic decisions on those systems as well as “other timely missile defense issues.”
Hicks backs nuclear modernization, but won’t comment on specific projects. Like Austin did during his confirmation hearing, Hicks was unequivocal in her support for broad nuclear modernization. But just like Austin, she stopped short of pledging specifically to uphold the entirety of the current nuclear modernization strategy, notable at a time when both the LRSO and GBSD programs find themselves as targets from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as well as from the nonproliferation community.
She deferred on technical questions about GBSD and its timeline, noting she doesn’t currently have access to that data.
“My view is that the triad has served us very well, it has created stability and it has value,” Hicks said.
However, she stressed that major decisions on nuclear policy, including about a potential “no first use” declaration, would come from above her. “I think our decisions on nuclear weapons should be driven foremost by strategy,” not money, she added.
Hicks said it is her “understanding” that a Nuclear Posture Review will be conducted by the Pentagon; the assumption among experts is that the NPR under a Biden administration will come to some different conclusions than that of the Trump administration, whose document called for the creation of two new low-yield nuclear warheads.
The transition fight will impact the fiscal 2022 budget. Before being announced as the deputy defense secretary nominee, Hicks was the leader on President Joe Biden’s Pentagon landing team. While transitions between administrations are usually smooth, the unprecedented situation of Trump’s refusal to accept his election loss bled over into the transition effort at the Department of Defense.
By mid-December, officials on the Biden team were publicly complaining about political appointees at teh DoD blocking their access. Pentagon officials canceled a number of planned meetings but insisted there was no issue.
Asked during Tuesday’s hearing about the impact those delays may have going forward, Hicks stressed the issue was “really around a handful of folks who made things difficult,” but said there would be a hangover effect for the FY22 budget.
“I think the biggest challenge that I will face, if confirmed, because of this is around budget transparency,” she said, indicating that the transition team was unable to look at what the Trump administration was doing with the FY22 budget request until late in January.
“Typically that information is shared with the transition team because the administration will owe to Congress a president’s budget submission in the spring. So the inability to look at that information … I think it will cause some delay in the timeline by which we can give budget quality information back to Congress. So that would be the area [where] I would ask for a little relief or understanding.”
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.