The prospective nominations of Dr. Kathleen Hicks as Deputy Secretary of Defense (DEPSECDEF) and Dr. Colin Kahl as Under Secretary for Policy (USD-P) provide observers with a sense of possible defense policy prerogatives for the incoming Biden Administration, should they be confirmed.

Hicks and Kahl, both of whom have long experience in previous Administrations as well as in the private sector, have written extensively on defense priorities, have responded to past and current policy decisions, and have offered recommendations for the Secretaries of Defense under President Donald Trump. The following outlines of a few of their recent writings and spins forward potential implications for their upcoming tenures as the senior most Department of Defense officials who will be working under prospective Secretary of Defense, retired Army General Lloyd Austin III.

The Gray Zone — Defined as the area between standard statecraft and all our war, the Gray Zone is an area in which foreign powers, specifically China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, have been able to operate to degrade US influence and power without provocation. Kathleen Hicks headed a project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to study and offer a response to the Gray Zone challenge. Hicks and her team outlined a multipronged response including implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to bolster America’s understanding of foreign nations as well as to defend the nation against misinformation attacks. Prospective implications for the Biden Administration may include:

  • Greater federal investment in AI R&D
  • Increased communication and cooperation between big tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook) and DoD – although this could change based on recent lawsuits
  • Emphasis placed on platforms that can span multiple domains and departments (interoperability between branches of military, intelligence community, State Department).

Iron Triangle of Painful Tradeoffs — In an opinion piece written in CSIS’ Defense360, Dr. Hicks discusses the challenge within DoD investment on balancing force readiness, investment and force structure – what she calls the “Iron Triangle of Painful Tradeoffs.” Dr. Hicks maintains that with scarce funds, the three sides of the triangle are at odds with each other. To combat this tradeoff, Hicks argues that DoD, the Congress, and the White House must invest in institutional approaches that achieve paradigm-shifting results.” Prospective implications for the Biden Administration may include:

  • Enhanced focus of senior military leaders in weeding out bureaucratic inefficiencies
  • Revitalization of BRAC
  • Reduction in force size as investment and readiness increase

Army Organizational Reform —  In 2016, a Congressional Panel, led by Dr. Hicks, offered recommendations for the future of the Army., the first of which was maintaining the force size of 998,000 troops across Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard, 450,000 of which would be Active Duty. The Panel also called for a more unified force, integrating the personnel and pay systems across the three components. While an Integrated Personnel and Pay System – Army (IPPS-A) has already been unified across Service components, force integration and efficiencies in other personnel and HR areas will likely be made a priority in a Biden Administration.

DoD Budget Cuts — In an article written by Kathleen Hicks in Foreign Affairs, she outlines her recommendations, for then SECDEF Mark Esper, on how to reduce defense spending while increasing efficiency. Similar to the Iron Triangle of Painful Tradeoffs, Hicks outlines security policy that would require a smaller force, freeing up money for readiness and investment. Hicks points to areas, such as unnecessary bases and antiquated procurement programs where she sees inefficiencies but where she knows that there is institutional resistance to change. Prospective implications in the Biden Administration may include:

  • Reduction in overall force size in favor of increased Research & Development funding
  • Reductions in spending for ongoing procurement programs in favor of increased funding for maintenance (she specifically mentions aircraft carriers and marine aviation)

Iranian Nuclear Deal — Dr. Colin Kahl has often written in support of using diplomatic relations with Iran to reduce their nuclear capabilities. In recent years, he has strongly criticized the Trump Administration for pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Prospective implications in the Biden Administration may include the US attempting to rejoin the JCPOA, or at least to renegotiate current terms. 

Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) — To counter the U.S. asymmetric advantages, US adversaries, such as China, have increased investment in longer-range missile capabilities in what is part of a larger A2AD operational concept. The 2012 Strategic Guidance, the development of which was led by Dr. Hicks, states that the military will combat this emerging threat by “implementing the Joint Operational Access Concept, sustaining our undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities.”

While the 2012 Strategic Guidance was promulgated eight years ago, the threat posed by China is more prominent than ever and the counter-A2AD priorities (undersea capabilities, stealth bombers, missile defenses) laid out will all likely remain under Dr. Hicks.

Competition Agenda — On a panel at the West Coast Aerospace Forum in 2018, Dr. Hicks criticized Trump Administration strategy for not focusing enough on modernization to combat the rising threat of China. She highlighted programs such as hypersonic weapons, space systems and cyber warfare as areas in which the U.S. is falling behind Russia and China. Prospective implications in the Biden Administration may include:

  • Shifting away from forever wars in the Middle East
  • Greater emphasis on Russia and China
  • Instilling a Culture of competition within the DoD
  • Increased investment for next-gen weapon systems (hypersonic missiles, AI, etc.)