Rebecca Grant: New Defense Secretary has an epic challenge ahead -- but he also has a vision for our military

While Robert Mueller’s minions were investigating Russians, Mark Esper was gearing up the U.S. Army to face off against Russia. And China, too.

This week the Senate voted 90-8 to confirm Esper as Secretary of Defense. He’s a former Army officer and Washington insider who first came into the Trump administration as Secretary of the Army. More on his credentials later.

Right now, please note that Esper grew up in Uniontown, Penn., population 9,824. He says he’s a towel-carrying Pittsburgh Steelers fan. But there’s something else very important about Esper’s hometown.

Uniontown was the birthplace of America’s most esteemed soldier of the 20th century: General of the Army George Catlett Marshall.  Esper grew up with Marshall as his personal hero, he told President Trump.

Marshall took the Army from a small garrison force unready for war in 1939 to victory in World War II.  After the war, as Secretary of State, he rebuilt Europe via the Marshall Plan and later served Harry Truman as Secretary of Defense.  Although Marshall died in 1959, his influence lives on.  Especially for Army officers from Uniontown.

Like Marshall, Secretary of Defense Esper has an epic challenge ahead. Esper intends to steer America’s military away from counter-terrorism wars, and toward being prepared to deter and defeat Russia, China and more advanced, high-tech threats than ever before.

“They are modernizing, they are eroding our overmatch, and they are improving their ability to threaten our interests,” Esper told the Heritage Foundation in an April 2018 speech.

Esper already has the vision.

“We are in a renaissance right now,” he said of the Army in a February 2019 interview with Pittsburgh’s Action News 4. “We’re trying to make sure we’re prepared to deal with state-on-state, high-intensity conflict in the future against countries such as Russia and China.”

Good thing Esper has worked on Capitol Hill, at the Heritage Foundation and as a senior executive for ultra-sophisticated defense contractor Raytheon.  Before that, Esper spent 10 years on active duty in the Army after graduating from West Point.  In 1991, he fought in Operation Desert Storm.

On the downside, Esper had barely a year and half as Army Secretary, assuming the post in late November 2017.

Secretary of Defense is a big step up. Running the Pentagon is a thankless job that has chewed up politicians, businessmen, academics and most recently Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a former Marine four-star who quit abruptly.

Trump shopped around for a new Secretary of Defense for six months before nominating Esper.  Perhaps he wasn’t the first choice, but Esper has a lot going for him.  He likes to take action and that bodes well.  As Army Secretary, he axed 200 programs he said were “not well-suited for the future fight.”

In 2018, Esper extended Army basic training by two full months to make it “the longest and hardest in the world.” The force “regardless of age or gender, must be physically and mentally tough,” he said in a speech to the Association of the United States Army.

The Army vision rolled out by Esper and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley anticipates an “unrelenting” future battlefield with forces fighting in multi-domain operations.  All those Army vision elements transfer well to leading the Pentagon.

Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both West Point, Class of 1986.  Rejoice that we have a Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State who have that friendship.  

Let’s see if Esper can focus and execute. He also has to give Trump military advice on Iran, North Korea and an Afghanistan troop pull–out if peace talks make progress.

Then there’s the defense budget.

On that front, Esper can follow in the footsteps of Marshall and spend time on the Hill advocating national security. So far, he’s gotten a warm reception. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., praised Esper for his prompt action on conditions in military housing.  Having worked as a congressional staffer should help immeasurably in that people-and-politics environment.

And don’t forget the press. Marshall held “rather genial mass press conferences once or twice a week,” remarked The New Yorker in an October 1940 profile.  Esper should, too.

Saving the best for last, Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both West Point, Class of 1986.  Rejoice that we have a Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State who have that friendship.


Esper will continue to work with Milley, who will soon take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Granted, that’s a lot of Army in high places, but at this point the working bond is paramount.  Together Pompeo, Esper and Milley will make or break the crucial race to stay ahead of Russia and China.

As Gen. Marshall said: “It is not enough to fight. It is the spirit which we bring to the fight that decides the issue.”