CORRECTED: Bilden is least experienced, not 2nd to last WASHINGTON: Trump’s pick for Navy Secretary, Philip Bilden, has less relevant experience than any of his predecessors since 1980, Breaking Defense has found. To be precise, every Navy Secretary for 36 years has had significant prior experience in either government or the defense industry or both: Bilden has none.
In this administration, having no history in the “swamp” that Trump plans to drain is arguably a major plus. But it’s a potential concern. Recent legislation has given the services increased authority to oversee complex and easily mismanaged weapons programs, and Trump has pledged a massive build-up of the Navy.
None of this is to deny Bilden’s distinguished resumé outside D.C.. He served 10 years in the US Army Reserve, leaving at the honorable but unexceptional rank of captain when he moved to Hong Kong in 1996. His almost two decades in East Asia as a highly successful private equity investor give him great experience in a geostrategically crucial region. Since retiring, he has joined the boards of the US Naval Academy and the Naval War College Foundation, making influential connections — most notably Defense Secretary James Mattis — and promoting scholarship of cyber warfare. Bilden even has a very personal stake: His father served in the Navy, his older son is now serving, and his younger son is at the Naval Academy.
All told, Bilden’s record in business, Asia, and the Navy community would make him a strong candidate for many government positions, such as ambassador to Beijing. But compared to past Secretaries of the Navy, Bilden is remarkably short on relevant experience. Of the nine Navy Secretaries since 1980,
- five had previously served in government positions directly related to national security (Ball, Danzig, Lehman, O’Keefe, and Webb);
- two had previously served in government outside of national security (Mabus and Dalton);
- one had previously served in the defense industry, but not in government (England); and
- one had served in both industry and government (Winter),
In short, if confirmed, Bilden would be the least experienced Navy Secretary since at least 1980.
[CORRECTED: The original version of this article said Bilden had more relevant prior experience than one previous incumbent, Clinton Administration Navy Secretary John Dalton. In fact, I had misread Dalton’s bio, and Bilden comes in dead last. My thanks to Sec. Dalton and to his former press secretary, Capt. (ret) Charles Connor, for pointing out my error].
(See the bottom of this story for a capsule bio of each SecNav).
Does Experience Matter?
Does Bilden’s lack of government experience matter? Not really, said one Democratic staffer, an experienced Hill hand who’s no apologist for Trump. “He has a somewhat standard service secretary background, i.e. a little military experience and a lot of private sector experience,” the staffer said in an email. “Mr. Viola (the nominee for Army Secretary) would appear to fall in the same category.”
But, I said, my research in hand, Bilden has little national security experience even compared to previous Navy Secretaries. “True,” the staffer said, “but there’s something to be said for business world experience sometimes, especially for an executive-type job like a service secretary.”
“What the service secretary does… is all the inglorious back office stuff, managing the civilian work force, the infrastructure,” said James Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation — which has heavily influenced Trump policy — who knows both Bilden and Viola from their work on various boards. “That’s particularly helpful for the service chiefs and the force providers so they can focus on the day job.”
Their focus on business doesn’t mean Bilden and Viola don’t understand the strategic and military aspects of the job, Carafano emphasized. “They’re both very knowledgeable about world affairs,” he said. “I’ve sat down and had beers with both of them….They’re not ignorant about what’s going on in China, they’re not ignorant about the Russians. They could probably give you the details of the Iran deal…. Phil has opinions on the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). Vinnie definitely keeps up with what’s going on in the Army.”
“As somebody that was in the Pentagon for a number of years and has seen a number of service secretaries…these are the best kind of people for service secretaries,” Carafano said. “Nothing against Randy Forbes” — the veteran Congressman who was the other leading candidate for the job — but, as Navy Secretary, “your job is not to figure out Navy strategy (or) Navy force structure…. You don’t really want somebody that thinks they’re Clausewitz or Mahan, you want someone who deeply loves the service, because there’re a spokesperson for the service.”
“(Bilden) has a phenomenal love of the Navy,” Carafano said. “Vinnie (Viola) would throw himself under a bus if it were in the best interest of the Army….Phil feels that way about the Navy.”
Bilden may love the Navy, but the crucial question is whether people will love him on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Senate, which must confirm him. The new chairman of the House seapower subcommittee, Rob Wittman, put out a statement briefly endorsing Bilden before going on to list major issues such as Russia, China, and growing the fleet. House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry has so far been silent. So has Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain, the retired Navy captain and combat veteran who, more than any other senator, has taken on Trump and who, more than any other senator, will determine whether Bilden gets confirmed. McCain has issued no statement on Bilden, and when I contacted his office, they declined to comment.
The Nine SecNavs
How does Bilden’s background compare to the nine men who’ve held the office of Navy Secretary since 1980? “I believe he has as much relevant experience for SECNAV as recent SECNAVs when they came into office.” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander and a former aide to the Chief of Naval Operations. “Ray Mabus was a naval officer for one tour, but didn’t have much to do with the Navy and military after that until he became SECNAV. Donald Winter and Gordon England were engineers and defense business executives before entering office. Bilden’s experience and education in international relations, his military service, and business experience compares pretty well.”
How well? We looked at bios of the last nine Navy Secretaries — their official government bios whenever available, for consistency’s sake — and distilled the essentials of their experience. Judge for yourself:
Obama’s only Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus, had the longest tenure in the office since World War I (serving 2009-2016). He also publicly clashed with his bosses in the Pentagon and earned the ire of Hill Republicans for promoting biofuels and renewable energy. Before his nomination, Mabus had served four years as Governor of Mississippi (1988-1992), whose largest manufacturing employer is Navy contractor Ingalls Shipbuilding. He was also Ambassador to Saudi Arabia for two years (1992-1996), and served two years in the Navy (1971-1972).
George W. Bush’s second Navy Secretary, Donald Winter (served 2006-2009), had previously spent only two years in government, but in a highly relevant field: He was a program manager at DARPA (1980-1982). Before and after his DARPA tour, Winter worked in the private sector, but specifically for defense contractors, first TRW and then Northrop Grumman. His particular technical expertise was space programs.
Bush’s first Navy Secretary was Gordon England (2001-2005, with a gap in 2003 to help start the Department of Homeland Security), who later became Deputy Secretary of Defense. Except for a stint on the Defense Science Board, England had no prior government or military service, but he had spent 40 years in the defense industry, successively heading General Dynamics’s Land Systems and Fort Worth Aircraft divisions (the latter subsequently sold to Lockheed).
Clinton’s second Navy Secretary was Richard Danzig (1998-2001), a lawyer. One of Bilden’s most influential advocates, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, explicitly compared the two men’s backgrounds. But before his nomination as SecNav, Danzig had already served as Under Secretary of the Navy (1993-1997) and as first Deputy then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, and Logistics (1977-1981).
Clinton’s first Navy Secretary was John Dalton (1993-1998). Dalton had arguably the least directly relevant experience of any SecNav in the last 25 years. His private sector career was in mortgages and home loans, and his government service was similarly far removed from national security: He was President of the Government National Mortgage Association at HUD (1977-1979), then a member and finally Chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (1979-1981). All that said, Dalton was a distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy and served five years on active duty (1964 to 1969), ultimately rising to Lieutenant Commander (one paygrade higher than Bilden) in the Naval Reserve. [CORRECTED: The initial version of this article omitted Dalton’s service at the Department of Housing & Urban Development].
The shortest-lived Navy Secretary in recent history was Sean O’Keefe (just four months, 1992-1993). He also had extraordinary experience in government, having served as Pentagon comptroller (1989-1992), as staff director of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, and even as a Presidential Management Intern. He went on to head NASA and the US division of Airbus.
George H.W. Bush’s main Navy Secretary was Henry Lawrence Garrett (1989-1992). He had previously served as Under Secretary of the Navy under Reagan (1987-1989), and before that as the Pentagon’s General Counsel (1986-1987). He spent 20 years in the US Navy (1961-1981), rising from Machinist’s Mate to White House Assistant Counsel, with two tours in Vietnam.
William Ball was briefly Navy Secretary under Reagan (1988-1989). He had been in the Reagan Administration since 1985, first as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs and then as Reagan’s principal liaison to Congress, where Ball had worked for a decade (1975-1985). He served six years on active duty with the US Navy.
Reagan’s second Navy Secretary was future Senator and presidential candidate James Webb (1987-1988). He was previously Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs (1984-1987) and counsel to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (1977-1981). A Marine veteran of Vietnam, he earned the Silver Star, the Navy Cross — the highest medal the service can award — and two Purple Hearts.
Reagan’s first and longest-lived Navy Secretary was the legendary John Lehman (1981-1987). Lehman’s largely successful drive for a 600-ship fleet made him one of the most influential Navy Secretaries of all time, to this day, and a model for anyone seeking to build up the Navy, as Trump has pledged to do. As a Naval Reservist for 25 years and an investment banker, Lehman also has some strong similarities with Bilden. But Lehman had extensive prior experience in national security roles, most notably as deputy director of the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency and as a National Security Council staffer for Henry Kissinger.