Mattis faces his biggest challenge yet as secretary of defense

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will have a big job to fill as U.S. secretary of defense. There's no doubt he's a fighter and a staunch advocate for U.S. military forces, yet his deftness in handling an organization as large, diverse, and set-in-its-ways as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) remains to be seen.

Jan 25th, 2017
John Keller New

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will have a big job to fill as U.S. secretary of defense. There's no doubt he's a fighter and a staunch advocate for U.S. military forces, yet his deftness in handling an organization as large, diverse, and set-in-its-ways as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) remains to be seen.

President-elect Donald Trump nominated Mattis as defense secretary last month. Not only must members of Congress confirm Mattis as defense secretary, but they also must grant a waiver to the National Security Act of 1947, which requires a seven-year wait period before retired military personnel can become secretary of defense. He retired from the Marine Corps in May 2013.

The DOD is one of the biggest and most complex bureaucracies in the U.S. government. With 2.8 million employees, the DOD is the largest employer in the world, and has its share of competing fiefdoms and special-interest groups. DOD has nearly 1.3 million active duty military personnel, more than 801,000 National Guardsmen and Reservists, and more than 740,000 civilians. That's a lot to manage.

Not only would Mattis as defense secretary be responsible for the DOD's internal personnel, but he also must ride herd on a $600 billion defense budget, about one-third of which is for procurement, research, and development. With that, the defense secretary also must form relationships with, and keep a close eye on, the companies in the U.S. defense industry. He also would have to spearhead efforts to revitalize the Department of Defense, which has faced eight years of downsizing, sequestration, and social engineering while at the same time trying to keep international terrorism at bay.

Mattis has a lot of leadership and management experience, yet nothing close to the size of the job that awaits him at the Pentagon. In the Marine Corps, Mattis has commanded everything from a rifle and weapons platoon to U.S. Joint Forces Command. Notably he was in charge of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command where he was in charge of the Marines training and education programs.

A lifelong bachelor, Mattis started in the Marines in 1969 as a second lieutenant, and retired as a four-star general in 2013. Since separating from the military Mattis has been on the board of directors of General Dynamics Corp.; was an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank and research group at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; and was an advisory board member of the nonprofit Sprit of America organization to promote the safety and success of American troops and locals they seek to help.

With a personal reputation as a straight-shooter, Mattis is known for his sometimes-blunt comments, which include:

  • "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."
  • "I were to sum up what I've learned in 35 years of service, it's improvise, improvise, improvise."
  • "Demonstrate to the world there is 'No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy' than a U.S. Marine."

It has been said that Mattis might be too much of a military man to lead the Pentagon. The secretary of defense, after all, is intended to be a civilian appointment, and represents civilian control of U.S. military forces.

Were Congress to grant him the necessary waiver to the National Security Act, Mattis would be only the second U.S. secretary of defense to receive such a waiver. General of the Army George Marshall retired from active service in 1945 and was appointed secretary of defense in 1950.

So assuming that Congress confirms Mattis as President Trump's defense secretary, as presumably its members will, the general will have his work cut out for him.

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