The Pentagon’s most powerful female official ever

 

Christine Fox, a former defense official and Hollywood inspiration, will be the new Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, making her, at least temporarily, the highest-ranking woman ever in the Defense Department. She replaces the outgoing Ash Carter, who retires Wednesday as the Pentagon’s equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer.

Fox, the former director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office, led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, the top-to-bottom assessment of Pentagon spending and resources that framed the decisions to be made in the age of cutbacks and sequester.

Fox’s appointment is temporary until an individual for the permanent job can be identified, vetted and confirmed, a senior defense official said. That’s a process that could still take many weeks — or months.

“I think we’re getting close,” a senior defense official told Foreign Policy, referring to the final choice for a permanent candidate.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Fox a “brilliant defense thinker and proven manager” in a statement released this week. “She will be able to help me shape our priorities from day one because she knows the intricacies of the department’s budget, programs and global operations better than anyone,” Hagel said.

Fox is not thought to be in the running for the permanent position, defense officials said. But given the ability of the Senate to confirm White House nominees, she could be in the position for at least several months.

Fox will not require Senate confirmation. Under what’s known as the Federal Vacancy Reform Act, the President can designate a senior employee to serve in a senior job if that the individual has served in a senior role in the Department for at least 90 days within the last year.

Fox’s appointment means she will become the first woman to serve as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense — and the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon ever. She is also a bit of a celebrity, at least for the Pentagon: she was the inspiration for the Kelly McGillis character “Charlie” in the Tom Cruise movie about Navy fly boys, Top Gun.

Still on the short list for the permanent position is Bob Work, the Navy’s former No. 2 civilian, now at the Center for a New American Security. Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale is well liked and could also get the nod, although some officials describe him as wanting to retire after being in the job since early 2009.

Fox will have her work cut out for her. While some see her as a perfect fit who can hit the ground running, she is also viewed as someone who is too Navy-oriented (she used to run the Center for Naval Analyses, now CNA) and her work as director of CAPE may not be seen as preparing her for “the whole enchilada” of running the Department.

Carter was heavily involved in running the day-to-day operations of the Defense Department under Leon Panetta. That has begun to change under Hagel, who has yet to possess the institutional knowledge required for the job but has signaled that he wants to be a more hands-on Pentagon chief. That left Carter, considered to know the building well and someone who had established strong managerial chops, somewhat frustrated about his role. Carter had been considered for the Pentagon’s top job but was passed over when Hagel got the nod, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would leave.

Fox had worked closely with Carter while she was a CAPE, but she had come in under Hagel’s direction to lead the strategic review. While she has analytic and budgetary credentials, she will need to get up to speed as a manager with such a broad portfolio, experts said. And, some have criticized Fox for presenting budgetary choices that were politically palatable but who was less inclined to push for less damaging options.

Fox has kept a low-profile until after leaving CAPE and the Pentagon. But in September, she penned an oped in Defense News titled Stop Pretending Forced Cuts Won’t Be Harmful. In it, she argued: “There needs to be a serious national dialogue on what a sensible, sustainable and strategically sound defense budget looks like,” adding: “But let’s drop the illusion that by efficiency nip and managerial tuck the U.S. military can absorb cuts of this size and of this immediacy without significant consequences for America’s interests and influence in the world.”

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