Here's Who's Running the Pentagon and Military Branches During Biden's First Days

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Oriana Pawlyk
·3 min read
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Just after Joe Biden became president at noon on Wednesday, the Pentagon announced the four people who will serve as acting secretaries of the Defense Department, Army, Navy and Air Force until the new administration names official nominees and completes the Senate confirmation process.

David Norquist, previously the deputy defense secretary, is now the acting defense secretary, the DoD said Wednesday. He will serve in the position while Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden's pick for defense secretary, undergoes the Senate confirmation process, which began this week.

John Whitley has been named as acting Army secretary, Tom Harker as acting Navy secretary, and John Roth as acting Air Force secretary, the Pentagon said in a statement. The Air Force secretary also oversees the Space Force, while the Navy secretary oversees the Marine Corps. Defense News reported the moves last week.

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Norquist has been deputy defense secretary since July 2019. Whitley, Harker and Roth are comptrollers for their respective services.

Whitley, who served in the Army's 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, has been in his current post since 2018. Previously, he served as a senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses, according to his Army bio.

Roth, who performed the duties of the undersecretary of the Air Force for a few months in 2019 and 2020, started his career as a budget analyst in the Navy before moving to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in 1984, according to his official biography. He transitioned into his Air Force role in 2018, his bio states.

Harker, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, has been the assistant secretary of the Navy for financial management and comptroller since 2018, according to his bio. He also worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget, and was briefly with the Senior Executive Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The three men were named to the posts after the service secretaries under the Trump administration submitted their resignations. The top civilians from each branch typically resign or offer to leave when a new administration comes in.

Those who have left their positions in the last week include Barbara Barrett, the 25th Air Force secretary, who had been in the post since October 2019; Ryan McCarthy, a former Ranger who took over as Army secretary in late September 2019; and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, who served as the service's top civilian since May 2020 following the resignation of Thomas Modly.

Aside from Austin, the Biden administration has yet to name nominees for those roles.

Austin, a retired four-star general who led U.S. Central Command until 2016, began proceedings with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He would be the nation's first Black defense secretary. However, he has not completed the seven-year "cooling-off period" required of former service members to serve as defense secretary and must receive a waiver from lawmakers to become the Pentagon's top civilian.

During the hearing, several members of the committee, including Sens. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican; Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat; and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, told Austin they won't support the waiver that will allow him to get around that rule.

Austin told senators he has spent his career carrying out decisions of civilian political leaders.

"In war and in peace, I implemented the policies of civilians elected and appointed over me," he said. "... I know that being a member of the president's cabinet -- a political appointee -- requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform."

-- Gina Harkins and Matt Cox contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Deputy Defense Secretary Norquist to Be Biden's Acting SecDef