Biden’s pick for Pentagon deputy vows to defend nuclear triad

Peter Martin and Tony Capaccio

President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy defense secretary told senators she backs plans to modernize the air-land-sea triad of nuclear weapons in the face of threats from China and Russia, an effort where she’d play a leading role.

“I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad, and if confirmed that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away,” Kathleen Hicks said at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “Nuclear deterrence is the cornerstone of American national security as long as there are nuclear threats out there.”

Kathleen Hicks

Hicks would be the first woman confirmed as deputy defense secretary, an opportunity she called “another crack in the glass ceiling.” She would report to new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the retired four-star Army general who is the first Black leader of the Defense Department.

Austin’s Recusal

Hicks will assume primary responsibility for procurement decisions about modernizing the nuclear triad – which may be a trillion-dollar effort over coming years – because Austin has recused himself from matters involved Raytheon Technologies Corp., where he previously served as a director. Raytheon’s Collins Aerospace unit is a subcontractor on a planned new intercontinental ballistic missile effort led by Northrop Grumman Corp., and Raytheon is the top contractor on the missile known as the Long-Range Standoff weapon.

In written questions to Hicks, the Armed Services Committee said Austin’s “broadly scoped recusal will almost certainly prohibit” his participation in those major decisions.

Hicks also would be responsible for directing day-to-day management of the vast Pentagon bureaucracy as it grapples with restoring frayed trust with American allies and helping in the nationwide roll-out of coronavirus vaccines.

Hicks, 50, headed Biden’s Pentagon transition team and is an expert on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She also has been serving on the board of closely held Aerospace Corp. She was deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and forces from 2009 to 2012 and principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy from 2012 to 2013.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who introduced Hicks, said she has “deep knowledge” of the Defense Department and its “bureaucratic black arts” and helped shape strategic policies in times of constrained budgets.

Hicks also commented on the challenges presented by China’s rise, echoing Austin in describing the Asian power as “the pacing challenge of our time.” She said that “armed conflict between the United States and China is not desirable and it is not inevitable,” but acknowledged that it’s possible.