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Deputy Defense Secretary Sees Challenges, Opportunities for DOD

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The deputy defense secretary certainly sees all the challenges facing the department, but she also sees opportunities.

Kathleen H. Hicks has been in her job just over a month, but this doesn't mean she is a rookie. Hicks began working in the Pentagon in 1993. No one needs to tell her how to get from the "E-ring" of the massive building to the "A-ring."

A seated woman in business dress speaks to a man across from her. The Pentagon logo is on a wall behind her.
Deputy Defense Secretary
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks speaks with DOD News reporter Jim Garamone during an interview at the Pentagon, March 12, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase, DOD
VIRIN: 210312-D-BM568-1013M

The department is also massive, but Hicks knows her way around that bureaucracy, as well.

Her prior experience enabled her to hit the ground running. This was needed as the prior administration's challenges to the 2020 election results delayed some of the turnover that normally occurs.

Budgets, China policy, extremism, Afghanistan, global posture reviews and more are all overlaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is more as the department has to take into consideration what climate change is doing physically and metaphorically to the strategy environment.

Hicks discussed many of these issues during a Pentagon interview — her first since taking office.

Typically, the president's budget request is delivered to Congress in early February. New administrations, however, take a bit longer. Due to the peculiar circumstances following the 2020 elections, the fiscal 2022 budget request may take longer still. 

Hicks signed a memo in the middle of February discussing how the department will examine the budget request. DOD planners will look at fiscal 2022 shipbuilding additions, the nuclear enterprise, long-range fires and aircraft — especially the F-35 and Air Force tanker programs.

The budgetary effects of climate change and COVID-19 will also be studied and addressed in the request.

DOD officials have not spoken about the topline for the budget, which last year was at $705 billion.


Officials at the time said the department needed a 3 to 5 percent increase yearly to maintain the resources necessary for the U.S. to keep its defense edge. Most pundits believe the topline will not reach that mark.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III talks about matching resources to strategy. "We don't know as much about how strategy links to the concepts for our theory of how we achieve victory against potential adversaries, our theories of how we deter those adversaries, and the kinds of capabilities we buy," Hicks said. "And that's what ultimately needs to link to strategy." 

The capabilities are the most important aspect, not the topline number. "We owe a budget, and there's a budget number attached to it," Hicks said. 

DOD really needs to expand the work and thinking that has gone into reorienting toward the China challenge over the past decade to pull out that piece that connects strategy to budget through capabilities, she said.

Competition with China will drive the discussion. Hicks called China the pacing challenge for the U.S. military. "We look at China as the nation or the entity that is growing its capabilities to a degree that really challenges the U.S. ability to defend its interests," she said. "It means China is the country against which we have to think and plan our capabilities because they are the most advanced."

"That's what pacing challenge means," Hicks said. 

Marine operates computer.
Cyber Ops
A Marine with Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command works in the cyber operations center at Fort Meade, Md., Feb. 5, 2020.
Photo By: Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jacob Osborne
VIRIN: 200205-M-VG714-0054C
A rocket launches.
Rocket Launch
A Delta IV rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., Dec. 10, 2020. The Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise team participated in the mission.
Photo By: Jeff Spotts
VIRIN: 201211-X-DM484-001M

The competition crosses all domains of warfare. This is not to say that China paces in everything. Russia certainly paces the United States in undersea capabilities, for example, she said.

Space and cyber are two areas of special concern, Hicks said. 

This does not mean the United States has to match every move the Chinese make. There are only 350 million Americans compared to 1.5 billion Chinese. The U.S. military could never match China in the numbers of service members. 

"How do we think about how we can deter effectively," she asked. "How do we think about the messages that we send with regard to our investments, with regard to how we work with others throughout the world?"

"Pacing a China challenge doesn't mean necessarily a symmetrical … ship-for-ship count approach," she said. "We look at how they are modernizing … and we have to pace our capabilities to overcome those challenges."

This is more than simple military capabilities. Allies are the greatest asymmetric advantage the United States has over China and Russia, Hicks said. "It's one that we haven't fully exploited, and one where our allies are very eager in common interest to work with us."

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III faces Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, who raises her right hand and puts her left hand on a book.
Taking the Oath
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III swears in Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks as deputy secretary of defense at the Pentagon, Feb. 9, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders, DOD
VIRIN: 210209-D-XI929-1007R

But the world doesn't stand still, and U.S. officials cannot concentrate on one issue to the exclusion of all else. While China may be the pacing threat, U.S. officials must deal with Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as violent extremist organizations. They must also deal with something totally unexpected like the tsunami of 2011 or last year's wildfires. "So much of what we're doing in national security … is thinking about managing risks, but it really is also looking to advance opportunities," Hicks said. 

The question becomes where can the United States grow opportunities for the American people through tools of national security? "That's largely, of course, not military, but we're always looking at how do we think about the kinds of forces in the military that we have developed, the time scale on which we're pacing different capabilities and those threats that can present themselves," the deputy secretary said. "We have to lean heavily on diplomacy, frankly. There are a lot of challenges in the world, and a lot of tools that we have — economic, diplomatic, intelligence and other ways of thinking about those challenges. But at the end of the day, the U.S. military has to prepare itself to provide options to the president across that full range."

The deputy secretary said she wants to do exactly the same thing on the workforce issues. "Each service … or each component, has unique requirements [and] has unique perspective," she said. "We want to bring those together and demonstrate that we can have unified approaches; that there will be sustained leadership attention on these issues, because that's how we will change the culture."


Recently, Hicks established the new Deputy's Workforce Council to examine tough issues: eliminating sexual assault and harassment; combatting extremism; encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion; addressing transgender issues; workforce development and professional military education; and more. 

This Workforce Council won't be just the flavor of the day. "The theme really is one of endurance," she said, adding that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told her that demonstrating consistency and endurance is incredibly important.

"People will wait you out for anything. So, you have to put in place processes to demonstrate that … you are here to change culture, and you're going to stay committed to those areas," she said. 

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