Here's Why the Military's Next Top Leader Is Likely a Woman

Barbara M. Barrett (L) sits with Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ)
Barbara M. Barrett (L) sits with Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) during her Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Air Force, on Capitol Hill September 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There's a consensus in Washington, D.C. that Defense Secretary Mark Esper is on thin ice with President Donald Trump, and is unlikely to remain in his position long after the election, regardless of the outcome.

That has spurred speculation among experts about the military's next top civilian leader. Whether Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins, some say Esper's successor is likely to be the first female U.S. defense secretary.

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That's the view of Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress analyst who is also a Vietnam veteran and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

He said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, a former Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt pilot, were possible defense secretary on the Republican side if they lose their Senate races next week and Trump wins.

The New York Times reported that Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, the former U.S. ambassador to Finland, and one of the few women currently in a top Pentagon post, was also a possible SecDef pick.

Much of the speculation on the Democratic side has been that Biden would choose Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of Defense for Policy and co-founder of the prominent think tank Center for a New American Security.

However, Korb said Biden could go with a woman who has combat experience, such as Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs in Iraq.

"We've had two women as secretary of state," Korb said, referring to Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright. (Hillary Clinton also served as secretary of state, for a total of three.) It's time, Korb added, for a woman to lead the Pentagon, after 27 men have held the position.

While it's not out of the question that Esper could stay on, the death knell for his tenure appears to be tolling.

Esper first got on the wrong side of Trump in public in June when he stated his opposition to using active-duty troops under the Insurrection Act to quell nationwide protests that followed the May 25 death in Minneapolis of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer.

White House officials have sidestepped questions on whether Trump still has confidence in Esper, and the New York Times earlier this month described him as a "dead man walking" in the corridors of the Pentagon, although he now spends much of his time traveling out of town or overseas.

In August at the White House, Trump appeared to refer to Esper as "Yesper." When asked about it, Trump replied that "Some people call him 'Yesper.' No, I get along with him. I get along with him fine. He's fine. Yeah, no problem."

In virtual appearances at think tanks in recent weeks, Esper's remarks have taken on the aspect of valedictories as he cites what he believes are major accomplishments during his tenure on improving readiness and preparing the military for potential conflict with China and Russia.

"Obviously, with a new president he'll be gone," Korb said, and "obviously, he's fallen out of favor with Trump."

"All the signals are that he would be on the way out" should Trump win reelection on Nov. 3, and he definitely will be replaced if Vice President Joe Biden is the new president, said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cancian said Esper was involved in multiple situations in which the Pentagon appeared to have been out of the loop on surprise announcements from Trump on proposals for troop withdrawals from Germany and Afghanistan.

"He routinely gets blindsided by things," Cancian said, while giving Esper credit for a generally good record in managing the Pentagon during a pandemic.

"He's been a very steady hand" in dealing with a mercurial president, Cancian said, although "he's very guarded. He's seen what happened with Mattis."

He referred to the stunning resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in December 2018 after Trump announced that he wanted all U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump later relented and several hundred U.S. troops remained in Syria.

If Trump wins, he has limited choices to replace Esper, Cancian said. "It would be hard to find somebody on the outside willing to come in," given the difficulty of working with Trump, he said.

There are a few male candidates who may be in line for the job.

The question would be "who within the administration would be willing to step up? My first bet would be Pompeo," Cancian said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was a classmate of Esper's in the 1986 West Point graduating class.

Others, according to Times reporting, include Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, a former Army Ranger, and Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and veteran Army officer who served in Iraq. Cotton is expected to win reelection easily on Nov. 3. Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump earlier this year, is another potential pick, the Times reported.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of women who have been secretary of state.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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