Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has had a rocky start auditioning for a permanent role in recent weeks, leading to speculation there may be other contenders for defense secretary waiting in the wings.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson's name has been floated for SecDef since Jim Mattis stepped down from the position, according to various reports. A congressional official also confirmed to Military.com that Wilson had been rumored as a contender.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, even tweeted out their support for Wilson stepping into the role.
In a recent interview, Wilson didn't rule out interest in the job.
"I serve here at the pleasure of the president and with the confirmation of the Senate, and I think that's probably where I am," she told Politico during a podcast last week. I think that's up to the president of the United States and the United States Senate."
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And the time may be right for a first-ever female defense secretary to lead the Pentagon, a key lawmaker told Military.com.
"Women have always had a positive impact on our national security and have seen their roles and opportunities rightfully expand in recent years," Rep. Anthony Brown, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said. "Women also continue to break barriers. Multiple women have graduated from Army Ranger School, two have passed the Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course and, recently, Simone Askew became the first black woman to hold the role of First Captain and lead West Point's Corps of Cadets.
"Women have risen to the top ranks in uniform and in our civilian national security leadership, and I'm confident we will soon see a woman shatter the last glass ceiling in the Pentagon," Brown, a Maryland Democrat and retired Army National Guard colonel, said.
"It's really striking over time to see how many women have been rising through the ranks and in greater numbers," said Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program and director of the Cooperative Defense Project. Dalton previously served in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2007 to 2014.
While there have been significant strides in adding female voices to the higher levels in the Defense Department, there could always be more, she said.
That effort usually starts at junior levels and progresses upward. For example, Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, part of the third class to include women.
She's the third woman to serve as the Air Force secretary, after Deborah Lee James, who served under President Barack Obama, and Sheila E. Widnall, who served under President Bill Clinton's administration.
A Rhodes Scholar, Wilson served on the White House National Security Council staff as director for defense policy and arms control for President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
She served as a Republican in Congress from 1998 to 2009, representing New Mexico's 1st Congressional District. She chaired the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence and was senior ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She also served on the House Armed Services Committee for four years.
Before President Donald Trump signed the policy enacting the first steps to create the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force on Tuesday, it was reported that Shanahan already planned to put Wilson in charge of an architect team for the new organization.
But she's not the only woman with an impressive background.
A few months after Wilson became the Air Force secretary, the Senate confirmed Ellen Lord to be the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment at the Pentagon.
As the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, Lord has looked for ways the DoD can cut costs and streamline purchasing.
"In 2019, one of my key objectives is to rewrite [DoD Instruction 5000.02, "Operation of the Defense Acquisition System"]," she told Defense News in a December interview.
"We have, right now, this huge, complicated acquisition process that we encourage our acquisition professionals to tailor to their needs," Lord said. "We are going to invert that approach and take a clean sheet of paper and write the absolute bare minimum to be compliant in 5000.02, and encourage program managers and contracting officers to add to that as they need for specific programs."
While Congress in recent budgets has delegated more acquisition and decision authorities to each of the services, Lord oversees a number of large-scale budget programs at the Pentagon, according to DefenseOne.
Those projects include the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship and SSBN 826 Columbia-class submarine program; the Army's Integrated Air and Missile Defense program; and the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), OCX GPS control stations, and the VC-25B Air Force One.
Lord's oversight of joint projects also includes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Ballistic Missile Defense System and Chemical Demilitarization-Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, DefenseOne said.
Like Shanahan, a former Boeing Co. executive, Lord started in the defense industry.
She holds a Master of Science degree in chemistry from the University of New Hampshire, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from Connecticut College. She was the president and chief executive officer of Textron Systems Corporation, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., between 2012 and 2017 and has more than 30 years' experience at the company.
She was also once the vice chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, as well as a former director of the U.S.-India Business Council.
Lord attended the Aero India aviation exhibition in Bengaluru this week as one of only a few officials at the event, where the U.S. hopes to make gains with India's defense sector.
Last week, she reportedly canceled an appearance at NDIA to instead attend a meeting at the White House.
But like Shanahan, her lack of a robust defense policy background may be a detriment among lawmaker circles, a former associate told Military.com on background Thursday.
That said, Lord has a "no-nonsense" attitude when it comes to getting things done. "She has that, for sure," the former associate said.
"Culturally speaking, the Pentagon it is the most intense no-nonsense place to work," said Todd M. Rosenblum, senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Under the Obama administration, Rosenblum had served as the acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs from 2011 to 2015.
"It is a hard place to lead. That's typical. [But] success is apparent [in the Pentagon] quickly," he said Thursday. "The ability to look forward, to get things to 'yes,' to be a vocal advocate, a bureaucratic fighter, but ultimately to support the decision made by the highers ups -- those are characteristics I see very much demonstrated by women in senior positions in the building."
Some are already eager for the first female SecDef -- no matter who it may be -- because it could change perceptions about women in senior roles.
"I do hope that, once it happens, it will change the conversation from one that focuses on, 'Women being capable' of serving in the role to one that's about, 'How do we get the best people for the job and train them to do the best they can' for their role in this field?" said Maggie Feldman-Piltch, CEO and founder of #NatSecGirlsSquad, a start-up organization promoting competent diversity in national security.
"The conversation now is so much [about] 'What is it like as a woman?' And we spend so much energy on little -- yet important -- things, like deciphering dress codes ... [when] we could perhaps start putting some of that energy into our actual jobs," Feldman-Piltch said.
Dalton said women like Wilson and Lord are examples of the "proliferation of very capable women that can lead in various nodes -- whether it's on the acquisition side or the service side in areas at the Pentagon that perhaps have even been lagging … and signals that the trajectory is quite strong … for having the first female secretary of defense."
For that reason, "I'm really looking forward to the day when we can say, 'Madam Secretary,' " Dalton said.