On 19 June, it became known that the acting head of the US Defense Department, Patrick Shanahan, would not be going through with the required confirmation process. US President Donald Trump announced the news on his Twitter feed, where he thanked him for his wonderful work and noted that the decision was related to family matters. Shanahan himself gave an interview to The Washington Post the next day, in which he elaborated on these family matters.
It was revealed that, in November 2011, his 17-year-old son, William, had brutally beat his mother and that Shanahan himself had sided with his son, arguing that his son had acted in self-defence and that his mother had been harassing him for nearly three hours before the incident. As a result, the son had struck her several times on the head with a baseball bat and she was discovered in a pool of blood with a fractured skull. It was the passage about his son acting in self-defence that became the subject of widespread debate and Shanahan admitted that he regretted using these words.
But that is not the only skeleton in the closet. The family’s problems began back in 2010. According to his children, it started with their mother, Shanahan’s wife, when she threw the entire Thanksgiving dinner she had prepared on the floor. She later began beating Patrick Shanahan, which led to their divorce.
What is interesting about this story is not the personal tragedy of a highly paid employee of the US aviation industry, but the fact that it was all leaked to the press after the FBI began to scrutinise the circumstances of these family dramas – in order to serve as the head of the Pentagon, you need to go through the appropriate checks and have an unblemished record.
It seems that the risks were quite high and Shanahan chose to slink back to the aviation industry he knows so well.
On 23 June, Mark Esper, who has served as US Secretary of the Army since November 2017, became the Pentagon’s new acting head. He is also well known in the military and industrial sector since he once worked as a lobbyist for Raytheon.
On the whole, Esper has a more suitable biography for a US serviceman – he graduated from West Point in 1986 and also studied at an elite army ranger school. During the 1990–1991 Gulf War, he served in the 101st Airborne Division and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
He then entered politics and served as chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative US think tank. For many years, he also occupied various posts on several US Senate committees. He has worked at the Aerospace Industries Association and also at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Esper served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy. He then returned to the Senate as Director for National Security Affairs. Another important detail is that, although he is positioned as someone who will suit both the Republicans and the Democrats, in all the structures of the Senate, he worked exclusively in a team with Republicans.
There is also the opinion that the US Senate will not delay in agreeing to his nomination (all the necessary formalities were carried out fairly quickly back in 2017 and he drew praise from members of Congress) and the final decision will be made in a few weeks. Experts believe that Esper’s combat experience is something that Shanahan was lacking, while, in terms of geopolitical confrontation, the new acting head, like the previous one, is concerned about the growing military capabilities of Russia and China. He is therefore a good fit with the current situation.
There are other options for who could take over as America’s top security official, however. One of these is the senator for Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton. He supports Trump on all military matters and uses anti-Iranian rhetoric. He is rather young, however, at just 42. Another argument against is that Trump is unlikely to want to weaken his team in the Senate.
US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer is also being considered as a possible candidate.
The two dark horses are Senator Lindsey Graham, and Energy Secretary and US Air Force veteran Rick Perry.
There has even been mention of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo, but that would then leave the question of who would take his place.
This is all just speculation, however. Mark Esper is more than acceptable to both Trump and the scrupulous military professionals.
Forbes recalls that Esper served as Raytheon’s vice president for government relations, i.e. he promoted arms sales. And, in view of the previously launched Third Offset Strategy, the current period is characterised by a heightened interest in so-called “future weapons”. This is an area that Raytheon is directly involved in, and, with the help of lobbyist Esper (and the more than 350 other professional lobbyists in the Trump administration), millions from the budget could be diverted to this sector.
Bearing in mind that Raytheon shares went up after Tomahawk missiles were dropped on Syrian targets in April 2017 and 2018, it is likely that such “surgical” operations will be important to the US industrial war machine for three interrelated reasons. First, the US has stockpiles of obsolete munitions that it would be preferable to dispose of effectively. Second, these stockpiles will need to be replenished to maintain combat readiness. Third, it would be preferable for the Pentagon and the White House to commission the very latest, most advanced types of weapons. The different versions of the SM-6 surface-to-air missile, for example, which were put into service in the US in 2013. There are just 500 of them in the US armed forces as yet, while various estimates place the number of obsolete Tomahawks at between 4,500 and 7,000. Or the development of hypersonic weapons capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5 and faster. Or the dozens of more conventional weapon types for all branches of the US military. Incidentally, the Javelin anti-tank missile system known for being supplied to Ukraine is also a Raytheon invention.
And it is not just for the defence capabilities of the US, which no one is going to attack anyway, but also to maintain an adequate level of sales to its partners on a voluntary-compulsory basis. (As with smart power, which is a combination of hard power and soft power strategies, US weapons systems are sold using a combination of mutual interests and political blackmail.)
The political climate in the US will also play a certain role, since the new election campaign is already under way. And it is important for Trump to show the effectiveness of his work by taking the credit for as many achievements as possible (and over the past three years he has proved himself to be a skilful window dresser). So stability in the US defence industry will only benefit his ratings.
Ultimately, Esper “will exercise all of the authorities and powers of the Secretary of Defense” until the final nomination, so the transition period will not affect crucial decision making.