Newly minted Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper enters the top job at a moment of both relief and urgency for the Pentagon.
The relief came from an agreement this week between Congress and the White House to fund the military for the next two years at $738 billion in fiscal 2020 and $740.5 billion in 2021, numbers that defense hawks have said they can live with.
“738 is a good number,” Esper said during his maiden press conference as a Cabinet member, adding that the Pentagon needs budgetary stability to plan and prioritize efficiently. “So I’m good with those dollars. No complaints.”
The urgency, though, comes from the Pentagon’s still-hollow leadership.
Esper, the first Senate-confirmed Pentagon chief in nearly eight months, spoke to reporters as David Norquist testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to deputy Defense secretary. The Air Force and Army still lack permanent secretaries, and other top jobs in the Pentagon remain unfilled or are being carried out by “acting” officials.
“We need to get staffed up quickly,” Esper said, noting that he spoke with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and the committee’s top Democrat, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Tuesday night about confirming Pentagon appointees.“We’ve got to get stable leadership.”
Esper, however, isn’t waiting to start making decisions. In one of his first acts as secretary, Esper established a task force focused on issues related to the military’s use of harmful PFAS chemicals that have been used in firefighting activities on military bases throughout the country and have been liked to water contamination.
Esper said the task force would include the Pentagon and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I spoke directly to Secretary Esper about the importance of this issue, and I’m encouraged that this is one of the first actions Secretary Esper is taking as Defense Secretary,” Senate Armed Services member Gary Peters said in a statement. “PFAS contamination exposure and contamination needs to be taken seriously and must be addressed.”
Esper, meanwhile, is also focused on increasing tensions with Iran during a contentious summer in the Persian Gulf. He plans to travel next week to U.S. Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Fla., to discuss the region with top military officials.