Esper says Pentagon needs 'to get staffed up quickly'

By Ashley Tressel / July 24, 2019 at 12:25 PM

On his first day on the job today, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in the Pentagon that the months spent without a confirmed official leading the Defense Department did not result in any lost momentum.

"I'm confident we didn't miss any beats, any steps, if you will," he said.

However, he echoed previous statements by lawmakers and Pentagon officials that the unusually high number of senior leadership vacancies in the building is detrimental to the department.

A dozen senior DOD posts, including deputy defense secretary and chief management officer, are held by acting officials.

"People in acting jobs -- when you don't feel the full confidence of the role, sometimes folks tend to maybe not behave as confidently, because you're unsure and you also don't want to bind the person['s hands] who may actually be confirmed," Esper said.

Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley in his confirmation hearing to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this month also addressed the issue, saying, "having a confirmed person in place" obviously strengthens civilian control of the military.

"We need to get staffed up quickly," Esper said this morning. "There are 59 Senate-confirmed positions -- 14 of them are filled by mostly acting [officials] and there [are] a couple we need to fill."

Esper added acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy's nomination to permanently fill that role should come out of the White House in the next few days.

He noted David Norquist, tapped to serve as deputy defense secretary, is appearing at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill this morning.

"We have some other people who should be coming out of the White House soon," Esper added. "My key is to get those positions filled as quickly as possible, keep pushing folks through the system. I had a good chat last night with [Senate Armed Services Committee] Chairman [Jim] Inhofe [(R-OK)] and [Ranking Member Jack] Reed [(D-RI)] about this and, again, I think there’s still that commitment out there to move this through. They recognize that . . . 14 out of 15 doesn't sound bad, but when you look at the top six . . . five of them, now four, aren't occupied by a confirmed person -- that’s what concerns me."