Trump Dismisses Defense Secretary Esper, Champion of Unmanned Vessels

vinson esper
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson, Sept. 2020 (USN)

Published Nov 9, 2020 2:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, President Donald Trump dismissed Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, the principal sponsor of the Pentagon's ambitious Battle Force 2045 fleet plan for the U.S. Navy. In Esper's stead, Trump has appointed National Counterterrorism Center director Christopher C. Miller as acting defense secretary. Mr. Miller will be the administration's fourth new secretary or acting secretary of defense in four years; the appointment will also be Miller's fourth defense-related post in the administration in two years.

Rumors of Esper's impending departure have circulated in Washington since June, when he suggested that federal troops should not be used to respond to a wave of domestic protests - except as a "matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations." His language did not appear to align with the president's promise to "deploy the United States military" wherever local governments failed to establish "an overwhelming law enforcement presence" to quell civil unrest. 

Trump's decision to dismiss Esper drew criticism from the head of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), though Smith and Esper have clashed in the past.

“In the national security community, it is well known that periods of presidential transition leave our country exposed to unique threats. Until President-Elect Biden is sworn into office next January, it is imperative that the Pentagon remain under stable, experienced leadership," Rep. Smith said. 

Acting Secretary Miller has three decades of service as an infantry and special forces officer in the U.S. Army, retiring in 2014. Miller was appointed Senior Director for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council in 2018, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism in 2019, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center in August. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and a three-time recipient of the Bronze Star.

Esper departs just months after unveiling an ambitious plan to reorient military resources to build up the U.S. Navy. In negotiations with the navy's leadership, he offered to divert funding from the other service branches to support shipbuilding if the Navy would make matching cuts of its own. The plan (Battle Force 2045) calls for a 500-ship fleet by midcentury, made up in no small part through the development and construction of unmanned vessels. It also places a heavy emphasis on expanding the nuclear submarine fleet, with a focus on attack subs. The expansion in hull count would be offset by a reduction in the number of high-cost platforms. The details of the plan have not yet been released to the public.