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By Ben Kesling
WASHINGTON -- Mark Esper, a former defense-industry lobbyist and the current civilian head of the Army, brings a long resume as Washington insider to his new role as acting secretary of defense.
Mr. Esper, named acting Pentagon chief on Tuesday after acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan stepped aside, spent seven years as the head Washington lobbyist for Raytheon Co. before becoming secretary of the Army nearly two years ago.
He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1986, in the same class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He served on active duty as an infantry officer before moving to the National Guard and Army Reserve until his retirement in 2007, according to his official Pentagon biography.
Before taking the high-profile lobbying job for Raytheon, Mr. Esper worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill, including a stint as a senior adviser to then- Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.), who later became secretary of defense under President Obama.
Mr. Esper also served as chief of staff at a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, as a top officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and as executive vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade lobby. He has a master's degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University.
Mr. Esper's nomination to head the Army came amid a flurry of Pentagon candidates with close defense-industry ties and prompted the late Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to say he wouldn't support any more nominations to Pentagon leadership positions from industry insiders.
At that confirmation hearing, Mr. Esper laid out some of the touchstones that have come to define his tenure at the department.
"We need to fundamentally relook the whole acquisition process," he told the Senate committee, adding that the Army needs "closer engagement with industry -- both private and commercial sector [and to] look more to the commercial sector for off-the-shelf" products.
In less than two years that he has headed the Army, Mr. Esper has made a number of high-profile acquisition decisions, including canceling the Bradley fighting-vehicle program and other longstanding Army programs in favor of designing and fielding new equipment. Plans now include a new Army combat rifle and artillery piece, as well as high-tech night-vision goggles and a replacement for the Black Hawk helicopter.
Mr. Esper also created Army Futures Command, designed to help the service's research and development efforts and to integrate with high-tech private-industry companies.
His nomination as civilian head of the Army came after President Trump failed to fill the post in his first two attempts. Following a mixed reception to his nomination as Army head, Mr. Esper eventually gained bipartisan respect in Congress because of an effort to cut programs identified as unneeded and redirect funds elsewhere.
"I want to tip my hat to Mark Esper because the secretary of the Army, they've done a deep dive on all of their programs," Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said earlier this week. "They've figured out where their excess capacity is, and they don't want to buy excess capacity."
Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "Esper has a long history of dedicated service to this nation, and he has shown excellent judgment in his current position, which I expect will continue as he assumes the role of acting Secretary of Defense."
Mr. Esper has been outspoken, frequently taking questions from the media, though has carefully avoided talking about controversial policy issues beyond the scope of his job dealing with funding and personnel issues in the Army.
A representative for Mr. Esper didn't respond to a request for comment.
Write to Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 18, 2019 16:31 ET (20:31 GMT)
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