Washington, DC – Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan has only one picture hanging on the wall of his Pentagon office: that of his father, Mike, a Vietnam veteran who instilled a sense of service in his son.
Below the picture, hangs his father’s Bronze Star Medal from Vietnam, and his father’s badge as chief of police at the University of Washington.
‘I Grew Up in a Family That Values Service’
“I grew up in a family that values service,” Shanahan said in his first interview since taking office. “People ask me, ‘Why did you take this job?’ I think about the people who go to Afghanistan or wherever they are deployed and how hard that is, and they do it multiple times.
“My Dad was the tough guy,” he continued. “I only saw him cry once in my life: It was when he had to leave his family to go to Vietnam. If [today’s service members] do that all the time, then how hard is it to come here and work on what’s important here?”
The deputy secretary came to the department from Boeing, where he worked on commercial aircraft as well as military programs like missile defense and rotor aircraft. He is an engineer, with a twist.
“People are the answer, not the problem,” he said. “Here, the talent is incredible.”
At Boeing, the secretary ran a building twice as big as the Pentagon and with twice as many people. The scale of the Pentagon does not bother him. “The dynamics, the human nature part is the same,” he said. “The difference is the consequences. If you get something wrong here, it’s huge. The operational part is not intimidating, but the consequences are.”
Supporting Service Members
The deputy secretary’s job is to ensure that service men and women downrange get all the resources they need. Shanahan’s mission is to “make their lives easier,” he said. “That’s my fuel.”
Shanahan said he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis make a good team.
“He understands the lethal part and I am the engineer who can get it,” Shanahan said of his work relationship with Mattis.
Coming from the aerospace industry, Shanahan’s biggest concern has always been safety. “In DoD, that means the safety of our men and women and country and that supersedes everything,” he said. “But there is also the solvency side of this.”
Balancing Security, Solvency
Mattis and he are a one-two punch, Shanahan said. Mattis has the vision, he said, and “I have a lot of experience at being able to deliver the effects at the right price. A big part of my job is to take the complexity out of this building and the department so we can do more. I think of it as how do we reduce the stress and the pressure on our team.”
That’s where readiness is so important, he said, which includes delivering the right kinds of training, the right mix of personnel and making sure the health care delivers at the right level.
“My job here is to get the resources through the budget process, avoid being sucked in to reacting so you can spend your time really working on some of these longer-term issues,” the deputy secretary said.
Planning for the Future
This is difficult for people in the military because most “grow up doing nothing but operations,” he said. “You have to have this duality: the trains need to run on time, but you have to lay track for the future.”
The deputy said he works on two-, five- and 10-year horizons. “Two years is really the period in which you can have an operational effect,” Shanahan said. “Five years is where you can start to develop the capability, and 10 years is how long it takes to really change the culture in such a way that it will perpetuate.”
Since taking office in July, the deputy secretary said he has been doing more listening and learning than speaking. Still, he has been tasked to deliver a strategy driven budget “that allows us to compete and win,” he said.
The strategy has to have the resources dedicated to it to enable it to work, Shanahan said. The United States must plan for a military capable of confronting the threats of the future, he said, and it must fight today’s battles.
Shanahan said the DoD budget must restore readiness and then reorganize so things don’t take as long. That means, he added, streamlining processes wherever possible.
The department, he said, has accumulated processes to the extent that red tape can overwhelm sense. “You have to just cut it like the Gordian Knot,” Shanahan said.
And, groups working in the Pentagon are making progress on this, the deputy secretary said. Contrary to popular belief that Congress ties the hands of the department, many of the changes these groups propose can be done with a minimum of hassle, he said.
One example involves changes to make acquisition more effective, Shanahan said. “We haven’t found anything to stop us from being more efficient today,” he said. “We will run into some, at some point in time, but there is nothing in the short term preventing us from making significant changes.”
Developing the strategy and tying the resources tightly to strategy will be key, he said, and there are technologies that will help. “We’re not going to buy the future, but with the right technology we will enable our men and women to compete differently, and that’s where we will get the edge,” Shanahan said.
The department is working on these technologies and processes, the deputy secretary said. “People like to read that the future is bleak and that really bad things are going to happen to us,” he said. “I would argue that we have sufficient resources and talent.”
How the resources and talent are marshaled needs to change, he said.
Shanahan stresses the talent he has found in DoD. The department has people who understand the different domains and technologies and how they fit together to produce military capabilities. “Every door I look behind, I am blown away,” he said.
The military is a team, and service men and women prove that in the joint forces, Shanahan said. “We are looking to embody that at the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and DoD levels,” he said.
Shanahan said Pentagon teams are looking at strategy, technology, acquisition.
“The one that is fun lately is getting on the Cloud,” he said.
“When I interviewed with the secretary for the job, I asked him what his goals were for the department … he talked about lethality, he talked about the importance of expanding and strengthening our alliances and partnerships, but he [also] said he wanted organizations outside the government to benchmark DoD for effectiveness,” the deputy secretary said.
Matching the Speed of Business
Right now, the speed of government lags behind the speed of business, said Shanahan, noting the Pentagon reform groups that he’s empaneled want to reverse that.
“With the scale we have and the smart people, I think we can be faster than business,” he said. “We are spending a lot of time streamlining and the cloud is an example. When you enable the infrastructure the right way, you can move at incredible rates of speed. If you ask what’s the most important attribute, it’s speed.
“We are trying to be as fast and as nimble as the men and women downrange,” he continued. “We are putting in place the tools needed to compete and win. Whether it is business or government, speed is the measure of performance.”
DoD’s impetus has to be the men and women actually doing the work, Shanahan said.
“My Dad’s picture is a constant reminder to me,” he said. “We need to have deep appreciation of the missions that they do and the sacrifices they make.”