WASHINGTON – U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper was sworn in as defense secretary on Tuesday, ending an unprecedented period of senior-level instability at the Pentagon following the resignation of Jim Mattis last December.
Esper, who won Senate confirmation earlier Tuesday by a vote of 90-8, is an advocate of firmer ties with Japan, Australia and other allies in countering strategic competitors such as China and Russia.
The 55-year-old Army veteran and former defense industry lobbyist is also faced with regional issues such as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear program.
Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony at the White House, President Donald Trump said, “I am confident that he will be an outstanding secretary of defense.”
As secretary of the Army, Esper “played a crucial role training and equipping our armed forces,” Trump said.
Esper plans to visit Japan, South Korea and Australia in early August, according to sources familiar with the plan.
While in Japan, he plans to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya for talks on issues such as North Korea, China and Iran.
The new Pentagon chief may push for a U.S. plan to form a coalition of like-minded nations to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the sea lane connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, through which more than a fifth of the world’s crude oil supply passes.
Speaking at a congressional hearing on July 16, Esper said, “The growing threats posed by great power competitors such as China and Russia warrant a refocus to high-intensity conflict across all of the military services.”
“This requires us to modernize our forces and capitalize our rapid technological advancements in the fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy and hypersonics,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Esper worked as a congressional aide and a Defense Department official before serving as vice president for government relations at major U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Co. He was sworn in as secretary of the Army in November 2017.
The Pentagon had been without a permanent secretary since Mattis stepped down over a series of policy disputes with Trump, most notably over Syria.
When Mattis left, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was elevated to acting secretary, but he did not undergo Senate confirmation to become Mattis’ successor.
Esper took over as acting secretary in June when Shanahan resigned following disclosures about past episodes of alleged domestic violence in his family.