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[David Ignatius] Shanahan could transform Pentagon

In the days after he resigned as secretary of defense in December, Jim Mattis told people he hoped to be succeeded by Patrick Shanahan, his deputy. Shanahan has remained in limbo since the beginning of the year as acting secretary, perhaps trying to convince President Trump’s critics that he will be independent, the way Mattis was, while simultaneously reassuring the White House that he won’t.

Trump appears almost ready to name Shanahan permanently. Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s confidants, told me approvingly this week: “Shanahan is probably the best manager to be secretary of defense we’ve seen in many years. He has a deep understanding about how we need to rethink big systems to be able to compete.”

But who is Shanahan? What strengths and weaknesses would he bring to the government’s second-toughest job, after commander in chief? Shanahan has never served in the military, has been in government just 19 months and, despite 31 years as a successful engineer at Boeing, was never chief executive there or anywhere else.

Two basic conclusions about Shanahan emerged from a dozen interviews about him with Pentagon insiders over the past month. Internally, he may be precisely what the Pentagon needs -- a tough manager who’s prepared to break some rice bowls to reform what the military buys and spends, and drag it fully into the 21st century.

“I’m used to being directive. I’m relentless,” Shanahan told me in an interview this month. The Pentagon needs that tough management style.

But Shanahan’s prospects are murkier as an external manager, dealing with the White House and key foreign allies and adversaries. The questions are especially important when it comes to his ability to challenge Trump.

Mattis, a legendary former Marine general, saw part of his job as talking Trump out of ill-formed impulses. Shanahan can’t call on the same gravitas. His eagerness to show public loyalty to Trump on issues such as border security and Syria could limit his ability to push back against his boss in private.

Hard-nosed management is essential at the Pentagon. Defense weapons systems and employee benefits are far too expensive, and the gargantuan Pentagon budget masks what’s often gross misuse of money that prevents spending on technologies to counter Russia and China.

Shanahan says he understands the problem and is trying to fix it. Some examples gathered by members of his staff:

-- Readiness. Shanahan decided to focus on aviation maintenance, something he knew about from Boeing. He found that the “mission-capable rate” for Navy P-8 submarine chasers, adapted from 737s, is 65 percent or less. Rates for some fighter jets are even lower.

Readiness rates like that would be inconceivable at Boeing or a commercial airline, so Shanahan demanded change. Last summer, over protest from the military, Mattis set the target mission-capable rate at 80 percent -- still too low, but a big improvement.

-- Bureaucratic overhead. The Pentagon’s costs are high partly because it insists on doing so many things in-house. Six of the top 10 entities doing business with the Pentagon are defense agencies.

Shanahan pressed Chief Management Officer John H. Gibson, the Pentagon’s No. 3 official, to combine or eliminate regulations for procurement, performance and financial operations. Gibson didn’t deliver what Shanahan wanted, and he was forced to resign in November.

-- 2020 budget. Shanahan’s biggest test yet will be the budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. Plans call for buying two new aircraft carriers, a vastly expensive purchase of what critics say are vulnerable platforms. Shanahan opposed buying the carriers but settled for a compromise: The Navy will shelve plans to rehab one of its midlife carriers, potentially saving as much as $4 billion.

-- Space. Shanahan found a way to meld Trump’s passionate desire to create a Space Force with the equally fervent desire of the Air Force and its congressional allies to strangle this offspring. He reassured both sides: The Space Force will be contained within the Air Force Department, much as the Marine Corps is part of the Navy. But there will be a new Space Development Agency to give an independent prod to acquisition of advanced technology.

Shanahan’s gift is clearly his ability to straddle. But he would make a mistake if he thought he was playing to an audience of one. The president’s support is important for any cabinet official, but the secretary of defense has a crucial role in reassuring allies, managing the military and deterring adversaries. If Shanahan is seen as Trump’s yes man, he loses his clout.

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)