For Pentagon, Biden Picks Two Obama-era Policy Veterans to Help Austin

After passing on Flournoy, Biden taps Kathleen Hicks and Colin Kahl to be Austin's deputy defense secretary and undersecretary for policy.

President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of Kathleen Hicks to become the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian official, and Colin Kahl as undersecretary for policy, signals a coming shift in U.S. military priorities that likely include fewer warships and nuclear weapons, and a change in how the United States engages with allies. It also gives Biden’s controversial nominee for defense secretary, retired general Lloyd Austin, two experienced Obama-era civilian defense policy officials with progressive credentials that may serve to smooth things over with the president-elect’s early left-wing critics and buffer the defense industry’s influence with Pentagon leaders. 

Both nominees previously have worked for or closely with Michèle Flournoy, the popular former Pentagon official that many in the media and national security community assumed was Biden’s choice for defense secretary. She may not be taking the helm with Biden opting for Austin, but two of her colleagues, Hicks and Kahl, will be seated at the next two most powerful civilian positions in the building.

Traditionally, the deputy defense secretary oversees the military’s budget and weapons buying for the secretary of defense. The official also is often considered the figurehead building manager at the Pentagon and has been likened to the chief operating officer of a private corporation, according to Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. 

Hicks is a former Pentagon policy official who most recently is senior vice president and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank. Choosing her for deputy defense secretary has the potential to realign the office more closely with the Pentagon’s policy shop. It also may alleviate concerns about Austin, a retired general who sat on defense corporate boards, to have policy leaders like Hicks and Kahl at his side instead of former defense industry executives, who previously have held the post. 

If confirmed, Hicks would become the highest ranking woman in the Pentagon’s history. Christine Fox served as acting deputy secretary during the Obama administration, but was not confirmed by the Senate.

In a note to clients, Callan said he expects Hicks to reexamine how the U.S. military’s budgets, concepts, and theories align with China and Russia, push for more innovation, and “work within DoD budget resources and not simply ask for more that’s unlikely to be realized.”

Callan said Biden’s pending choices for two other weapons-related positions under Hicks — the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment and the undersecretary for research and engineering — would reveal how much his administration “will push for investment in new technology, weapons, and operating concepts at the expense of legacy programs and force structure.”

If confirmed, Hicks would likely play a significant role in evaluating the Pentagon’s modernization priorities, including buying new nuclear weapons and warships. The Trump administration has advanced plans to buy new nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range nuclear cruise missiles and a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines — all efforts launched by the Obama administration. However, Trump’s Pentagon has introduced a controversial low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear missile.

Hicks would also play a major role in deciding which research projects enter into production or are scrapped, such as a bevy of new hypersonic weapons undergoing development trials.

In a January paper, Hicks and her colleagues at CSIS lay out a plan which, they argue, would decrease military spending while also deterring China and Russia. The key components are a gradual drawdown of forces in Europe, relying more on capabilities that partners have been developing to deter Russia, and a “disengagement” from operations in the Middle East, except for those missions that are focused on building partner capacity and those that are “directly relevant” to countering Chinese and Russian military capabilities.  Hicks also advocates for a potentially larger U.S. military presence in Asia, at least enough to provide “credible deterrence” to China, but not necessarily more ships or bigger ones. 

Instead of maintaining large numbers of U.S. forces deployed in large numbers of places, the strategy Hicks put forth emphasizes using special operations forces and highly survivable equipment, and setting the stage for larger conventional forces to surge back into hot zones in the event of major conflict. 

The Hicks strategy continues some key themes of the 2017 National Security Strategy, but there are differences. While Hicks’s strategy maintains a nuclear triad of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, sub-launched missiles, and bomber-based weapons, Hick’s strategy doesn’t add to the numbers (as the Pentagon is currently set to do.) The strategy forgoes the more provocative new “non-strategic” weapons, such as the sub-launched variable yield nuclear weapon. 

Hicks’s strategy keeps the non-nuclear B-1B Lancer, which is currently planned for elimination and supports current plans for a new stealth bomber, the B-21, which is being developed in secret by Northrop Grumman. 

While the Pentagon has been pushing for an expanded naval presence, the Hicks strategy reduces the Navy’s desired 2030 ship count by “perhaps as much as one quarter” of the 350 projected last January, with “dramatic” cuts to aircraft carriers as well as small and large surface combatants. Hicks offers greater emphasis on submarines and unmanned ships. It’s hard to say whether the strategy represents more of an exploration than a concrete agenda (Hicks did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) But Hicks and her co-authors anticipate $450 billion in savings over a ten-year period. 

Hicks has also written on the importance of grey zone operations, in places where violence or attacks may be occurring — perhaps through proxies or by means of unconventional warfare — just beneath the threshold of state-on-state conflict. Many observers predict an increase in such activities if great-power tensions continue to rise between the United States and adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran. A July 2019 brief lays out several recommendations for helping the U.S. turn the tide in such situations. The recommendations place a big emphasis on better intelligence gathering and analysis and even using “artificial intelligence to identify patterns and infer competitors’ intent.” But the biggest push is for better, more engaged diplomacy. 

Kahl, if confirmed, would return to Washington to assume the job once held by his former boss, Michele Flournoy. Fifteen years ago, Kahl was a key figure in a deliberate effort by Democrats to recast the party as tough on defense and security issues after John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush. After campaigning for Obama, he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to the end of 2011, helping that president surge troops into Afghanistan and close up the less popular Iraq War, while supporting extensive extrajudicial drone operations for counterterrorism operations. He left Washington after serving as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor and landed in Stanford (alongside a roster of notable former officials including Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster), where he is a professor and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Now, Kahl will face a party less interested in seeming tougher than Republicans and more interested in ending “endless wars,” as Biden said Austin was tasked to do.  

Kahl, in part, presided over the U.S. response to the so-called Arab Spring, a response that has drawn criticism from conservative hawks such as Mitt Romney as well as from scholars such as Shadi Hamid. 

In August, Kahl offered broad endorsement of the key themes of Trump’s National Defense Strategy to Foreign Policy, stating “great-power competition is back.” In September, Kahl told Time magazine that a Biden approach to the Middle East would keep enough troops on the ground to act as “sensors,” but the approach would primarily be “indirect” working mostly through local forces. 

How Kahl would have the United States address today’s Middle East is unclear. In 2013, closer to the Arab Spring but prior to the ISIS wars, Kahl advocated for “progressive engagement” in the region, with fewer U.S. troops in large bases that could be vulnerable to potential revolutions.  He’s also recently argued for greater scrutiny for arms sales. In 2013, he said such sales should be joined by “Quiet conversations [to] outline expectations and the broad contours of a reform agenda. Security sector reform should receive more emphasis, with the aim of improving respect for human rights, civilian control, and the rule of law.”

“The United States,” he said, “needs to be willing to accept the outcomes of local politics and abandon delusions of controlling them, while clearly and forcefully laying out its own positive vision for democratic and liberal change.”