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Dr. Mara E. Karlin

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities


Dr. Mara E. Karlin was sworn in as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities on August 17, 2021. In this capacity, she led the development and implementation of the 2022 National Defense Strategy. She is also responsible for advising the Secretary of Defense and others on the forces, plans, posture, emerging capabilities, and security cooperation activities necessary to implement the defense strategy. As part of this, she manages policy and strategy for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). During her tenure, Dr. Karlin has overseen the formation of a new emerging capabilities policy office; a historic modernization of U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific; the implementation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States partnership (AUKUS); reform of the security cooperation workforce; and the development of the Defense Planning Guidance, Guidance for the Employment of the Force, and Contingency Planning Guidance.

While serving in the Biden-Harris Administration, Dr. Karlin has performed the duties of Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy three times (July 2023-present; January-April 2023; August 2021-February 2022). In this role, she supported the management of the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy and advised senior DoD leaders on a wide range of regional and functional national security, foreign policy, and defense issues. She also served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (January-August 2021), leading the Department’s relations with nearly 150 countries in Europe (including NATO), the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Eurasia, and the Western Hemisphere.

Dr. Karlin was on the defense policy team for the Biden-Harris Transition. She was also Director of Strategic Studies and an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), as well as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission staff and a member of the Congressionally appointed Syria Study Group. Previously, she served in national security roles for five U.S. secretaries of defense, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, Principal Director for Strategy, and Levant Director. In these positions, she advised on strategic planning, defense policy and budgeting, future conflicts, and regional security affairs in the Middle East and Asia.

Dr. Karlin started her government career as a civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and has received the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award. She earned an undergraduate degree from Tulane University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Strategic Studies from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is the author of two books on defense policy and military history.