What My Experience as a Female in Defense Tells Me About the Next Secretary of Defense Choice

In the mid 1990s, I was serving as the lead naval intelligence planner for Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). Central Command (Centcom), as many now know, is the military command in charge of our conflicts with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran and anything else that popped up in its geographic area of responsibility. NAVCENT's headquarters, now also known as Fifth Fleet, are in Bahrain; but I was part of its rear headquarters, co-located at the time with Centcom Headquarters in Tampa, Florida. I was due to be transferred and asked to be considered for assignment as the senior intelligence officer (N2) in Bahrain. If accepted, I would have been the first woman and African American assigned to that job.

The Admiral in charge as well as his departing N2 put in a good word for me. The senior Admiral in Naval Intelligence usually gave a thumbs up or down for senior assignments.  He turned me down telling my boss that he wanted to assign someone who was senior to me and had more experience. He had ended up assigning someone junior to me and who did not have the amount of experience I had in the Persian Gulf region. I chose not to complain about the decision, deciding there was some organizational and Washington D.C. politics going on I did not understand or was aware of. This brings to me to what I'd like to blog about today, the decision on who should be the next Secretary of Defense.

The current front runner, former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, has come under a lot of criticism for a number of things such as being open to negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, anti-gay comments he made concerning the proposed appointment of an openly gay man for ambassador to Luxembourg, opposing the Iraq war surge, and using the term "Jewish Lobby." Others have covered these topics pretty extensively so I won't except to point out if we disqualified everyone who at some point in their life said something stupid or misinformed about some group, no one would ever be able to serve in public office or hold key government positions. The important thing is that his views on gays in the military have changed and that he has clarified his position on Israel. I happened to have been assigned to a military command in Nebraska while he was senator and thought both he and then Democratic Senator Bob Kerry served their state well. That's not to say I approved of everything they said and did.

I think the most important factor in choosing a new Secretary of Defense should be based on recent or current experience serving in the Department of Defense. Senator Hagel is a decorated Veteran of the Vietnam War and while in the Senate worked on foreign policy and intelligence committees. He has stayed engaged in foreign policy and among other activities heads up a think tank. In spite of that background, he will have a steep learning curve. We are a nation at war in Afghanistan, with al-Qaeda, an undeclared war in cyber space and dealing with numerous crises in Korea, Israel/Palestine, and how to respond to China's rapidly modernizing military and bully tactics in the East and South China Seas. When you factor in the declining defense budget, you have a pretty complex task for whoever gets the job.

One of the major things I learned during my 28-year government career was if you don't understand both the culture and politics of a particular organization, it's difficult to get things done. Not only that, but if the people you now have to lead feel you don't have the right background or understand what's needed they will throw up roadblocks and make the task that much harder until you prove yourself to them. It can be done but makes an already tough job harder. 

This falls in the "nobody asked me" category, but if asked my opinion I would select either the current number two guy at the Pentagon, Ashton Carter or Michelle Flournoy who until 2011 was the number three person. I think the best would be Flournoy. While at the Pentagon, she was in charge of policy and strategy. In the current environment of austerity and downsizing in the midst of a war, I believe you need someone who can come up with new and innovative ways of doing business.

During her time at the Pentagon among other things she was in charge of putting together the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) a report Congress requires to come out every 4 years. Basically, it outlines what the Defense Department sees as the major threats and how they recommend combating them. Testifying before Congress in 2010 as she outlined she stated:

QDR analysis strongly supports our conclusion that the United States requires a portfolio of military capabilities that provide maximum versatility across the broadest possible and plausible spectrum of conflict. The changes directed under the QDR enhance the agility of the force, particularly through an increased emphasis on key enabling capabilities.

By enabling capabilities, I mean the kind of support forces that seldom get the attention they deserve but have been in quite short supply for today's wars and will remain critical for the future. Examples include things like helicopters, UAVs, platforms for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare capabilities, communications networks and enhanced cyberspace defenses [...] this QDR provides the department with an approach to force planning that is appropriate for the world we face, not the world we would prefer to face.

I included the quote to give an example of her defense philosophy. If she does become the number one candidate, it will require someone to take out the glass ceiling with a sledgehammer. There has been much progress for women in the Defense Department but there are still those who believe women don't have the right "qualifications."

I'll conclude by giving you some more background of the vignette I opened with. Some would say Gail the laws at the time did not allow you to serve on ships so maybe you weren't chosen because you didn't have the right background. True enough, but my first assignment had been as the test case for women in operational Navy squadrons.  You've never heard of me because it worked and the guys accepted me. My time at NAVCENT coincided with what has been called the "Forgotten Iraq War," the time in between Desert Storm and the 2003 war. There were numerous crises, some very intense. The nature of my job caused me to be the senior advisor to the Centcom General in charge of intelligence for naval and marine issues. Working initially in Tampa it became my task to design the plan for providing intelligence support for Navy and Marine units in the Persian Gulf (including deciding what hardware and software was needed and acquiring it). Once that was done, I'd head over to the Gulf to oversee the intelligence support for that part of the staff working the Iraq crisis. I even filled in as the Acting N2 a time or two. I also filled in as the senior NAVCENT planner a task usually performed by someone with war fighting credentials (i.e. someone who had been in charge of a ship, aircraft squadron, etc.) war fighting this not to brag, there are many who have achieved similar and more impressive feats. What it does illustrate is that I did have the background for the N2 job. I'll never know if being a female played a part in not getting that particular job. My next job was great so I don't have an ax to grind. So far the only potential negative thing I've heard about Michelle Flournoy concerns the reason she gave from stepping down from her Pentagon job was for work life balance and to spend more time with her children. I've known many men in the military who either left the military or chose jobs not considered on the career fast track. Typically, those jobs require killer hours and much time on the road.

I'm not saying the president should chose Flournoy because she is a woman, only that I hope she won't be chosen because she is. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Gail Harris

In 1973 Captain Gail Harris (March ’82), United States Navy (Retired) broke a 200 year old tradition becoming the first woman in Naval History to serve as an Intelligence Officer in a Navy combat job 20 years before federal laws changed making it a common occurrence. At her retirement in December 2001 she was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy. Her 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. She writes a blog on defense topics for the Foreign Policy Association and her book A Woman’s War is available on Amazon.com. The book was been chosen as an Editor’s Pick for 2010 by the Foreign Policy Association. Other career highlights: - Hand picked to lead intelligence support for the 1988 Olympics - While assigned to United States Strategic Command hand picked to provide intelligence support to United States Central Command’s Desert Fox operations and U.S. European Command’s operations in Kosovo. These efforts were much praised by European Command and called “masterful” by the Joint Staff.

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