The only friction Mark Esper encountered with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) during his confirmation hearing to become secretary of the Army was concern his previous affiliation with Raytheon [RTN] would further stack the Pentagon with defense industry executives.

Esper, head of Raytheon’s government relations and a West Point graduate, was tapped on July 20 as the next secretary of the Army. SASC Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the first to mention reservations that the Trump administration was stacking the Defense Department civilian appointed positions with defense industry executives with possible conflicts of interest.

Capitol under clouds

“I would be remiss if I did not reiterate my concerns about the number of nominees from defense industry filling out the leadership ranks at the Department of Defense,” McCain said. “I want to be clear that my reservations grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominees, including yours and a handful of others that had yet to be nominated. It was then I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background beyond those we had already discussed.”

McCain thanked Esper for vowing to recuse himself from any Army matters dealing with Raytheon for at least two years and not seek waivers to circumvent that recusal, both of which Esper laid out in a letter to the committee.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also questioned Esper over his position at Raytheon, where he oversaw Army programs and a team of lobbyists that advocated for the company to the government on a range of military issues and platforms. Warren asked whether Esper would consider recusing himself from Raytheon-related army business for the duration of his term.

Esper declined, but said he would revisit his recusal with SASC at the end of the first two years if he were confirmed and remained in the position.

Esper began his career as an infantry officer in the 101st Airborne Division and served during the first Gulf War in 1991. He later served on active duty in Europe and on the Army Staff in Washington, D.C., before transitioning to the National Guard. He retired from the Army after 21 years of service. 

Esper was an airborne ranger and recipient of the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and Meritorious Service Medals, among other awards and qualifications.  He also has legislative experience working national security issues for former Senators Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), and directed national security affairs for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). 

At Raytheon, Esper oversaw three Army programs: the Patriot air defense system radar, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, and the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A). JLENS, a blimp outfitted with ballistic missiles sensors that would serve as an early-warning system for the Washington, D.C., area, has been canceled. Development of DCGS-A was interrupted when Congress ruled the Army could achieve its goals with commercial technology.

DCGS was one of several failed Army programs McCain listed to illustrate the Army’s checkered acquisition track record. He also mentioned the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, which has become a favorite punching bag of McCain’s for costing $6 billion while failing to meet Army requirements.

“Over the last 10 years or so, we have wasted about $40 billion on programs like the Future Combat System, the Comanche helicopter, the Crusader howitzer, the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Distributed Common Ground System-Army,” McCain said. “Let me just tell you now, that is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to the taxpayers of America. It’s not acceptable to the members of this committee. … We do not want any more of these failures. You lose credibility with the American people when a program has to be canceled but it cost the taxpayers over $6 billion.”

Esper agreed with McCain that the Army’s acquisition report card is less than stellar, but said modernization was necessary to prepare for future fights. He called for a complete overhaul of the acquisition system to insure the Army is provided with modern equipment quickly, efficiently and affordably.

“To do that you need to take a holistic approach which looks at processes, programs, people, policies,” Esper said. “My view is that the era of minor fixes is over. We need to fundamentally relook the whole acquisition process beginning with the requirements piece of it and all the way through to the testing and fielding.”

“I share your … concerns with regards to the Army’s modernization record,” Esper said. “It certainly is fraught with a number of mistakes in the past, not only the cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars, but maybe more importantly, it left soldiers without the tools and weapons and equipment they need to be successful on the battlefield.”

Modernization would be Esper’s second priority if confirmed, second only to readiness. He advocated for increased funding for the Army to maintain current readiness while preparing for a potential high-end conflict with a near-peer nation.

“I do not think the current budget is adequate to maintain current readiness or prepare for future readiness,” Esper said. “The Army faces many readiness challenges right now, not least of which … is to engage a near-peer competitor in a high-end fight. With only one-third of the brigade combat teams and 25 percent of the aviation brigades ready, engaging in such a conflict would be conducted at significant risk.”

The Army has been without a confirmed senior civilian for nearly a year. Robert M. Speer and then Ryan McCarthy have been acting secretaries of the Army since Eric Fanning left the post in January. Esper is the third person offered the job since President Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.

Esper shared his confirmation hearing with three other Defense Department civilian nominees. Also testifying were Robert L. Wilkie to become undersecretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness, Joseph D. Kernan to become undersecretary of defense for Intelligence, and Guy B. Roberts to become assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological defense programs.

All are expected to be confirmed by the full Senate as soon as a vote is scheduled.

“We intend to move your nomination as quickly as possible,” McCain said. “We need you to get to work.”