The Magazine

What a Defense Secretary Does

Pace Hagel, it’s a policy-making job.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By DAN SENOR
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Despite his extraordinary achievements, McMaster’s career hit a ceiling: As a colonel in 2006 and again in 2007, the Army promotion board passed him over for the rank of brigadier general, prompting Secretary Gates to step in. By helping to arrange for General Petraeus—a McMaster booster—to return from Iraq and take charge of the 2008 promotion board, Gates ensured that McMaster and others whose careers he wished to advance were promoted. The same special board also promoted Colonel Sean MacFarland, the architect of the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Ramadi (today he is a major general). There was no precedent for a combatant commander being brought back from a war theater to facilitate a promotion. But an assertive defense secretary using his extraordinary powers could make it happen. Soon after, McMaster was assigned to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, where he helped shape Army doctrine in ways that are likely to endure for decades.

That high-level military appointments have pivotal consequences for the way in which America fights its wars is reflected in the fact that all General Officer appointments are technically presidential appointments. However, it has been rare for a president to get directly involved except in extraordinary circumstances—e.g., Presidents Bush and Obama picking General Petraeus for command in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. More often, the president rubber-stamps the selections of the secretary and the Joint Chiefs. In fact, the U.S. Code states that “the Secretary of Defense shall inform the President of the qualifications needed by an officer.” So in addition to winnowing down the list of possible candidates for a command and making a recommendation, the secretary of defense provides the president with the criteria and parameters for each hire.

These recommendations have great bearing on the advice the president receives on war and national security matters. The president receives briefings from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and from the secretary of defense. The chairman relies on the Joint Staff for his advice. The secretary relies on his own extensive staff, almost all of which he selects without serious White House involvement. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) personnel provide the secretary with the information, intelligence findings, and analysis that inform the advice he gives to the president. The makeup of the OSD matters tremendously, and that makeup typically reflects the predilections of the secretary, not the White House. For good or ill, OSD personnel is DoD policy.

The secretary of defense’s authority extends beyond personnel and deployments. Given his essential role in developing the defense budget, he determines the weapons and support that will be available to our troops once they are deployed. The White House can (and often does) set top-line figures for defense spending. It does not, however, write the actual budget, which emerges from painful negotiations within the services and then among the services, with the secretary as the final arbiter. Should we cut troops to fund airplanes? Should we buy more F-22s or proceed with research on ground vehicles? How many Patriot antimissile batteries should we field? These are all questions that the secretary will answer—and with which the White House will rarely if ever get involved.

In the mid-1970s, with the Soviet Union extending its quantitative edge in materiel, Secretary Harold Brown tasked William Perry, then undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, with ensuring America’s qualitative edge through a project that evolved into a bold bet on “invisible” aircraft. As Perry explained at a 2003 conference at Stanford University, “I saw immediately that this so-called stealth technology, if successful, would give the U.S. Air Force an overwhelming advantage. .  .  . So I told the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] that it would have all the resources needed to prove out the concept as quickly as possible.” Six months later the team had test flown a scale-model aircraft. In 1977, Brown put the full weight of his office behind the program, bringing in the Air Force to work jointly with DARPA and build a new stealth bomber within just four years—an incredibly ambitious feat which was achieved as planned by the time Brown left office in 1981. 


As Perry noted, “when this technology was being introduced into the military arena, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was considerable skepticism that it would really be effective.” But thanks to the vision of an assertive secretary of defense, the commitment to pursue stealth technology in the 1970s led to technological innovations such as our current drone capabilities that have proven vital for U.S. military superiority in the decades since.

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