The next SECNAV is going to be “off-the-radar” financier Philip Bilden.
Mr. Bilden will be taking on an important post–he’ll run the tip of the spear of any kinetic (and some non-kinetic!) actions the Trump Administration might consider, leading service honored with a Trump-promised 350 ship goal, and his tenure will be blessed with a host of Navy and Marine Corps folks at the top of DoD, all probably pretty eager to take care of their “Service”.
It’s been rough. Ever since Philip Bilden appeared on the scene in mid-January, friends of Randy Forbes have been waging war against the nomination, striking at Bilden’s apparent inexperience, his decades of success in the Chinese business world, and trying to find some vulnerable chink overlooked in the Trump Administration’s haphazard vetting process. This is about all they found:
Bilden’s military experience is limited to serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. An official said he may have avoided fulfilling his active duty military service after graduating from Georgetown University in 1986 where he was enrolled in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for four years.
The Army discovered the lapse and forced Bilden to report to a military duty station while he was attending Harvard Business School.
The U.S. Naval Institute blog reported Bilden was a military intelligence officer from 1986 to 1996. But officials disputed the claim that Bilden served for 10 years.
If that’s all they’ve got, that’s not gonna stop anything.
At any rate, this “ex” intelligence officer ended up in Hong Kong just in time to
report on observe the state’s handover to China. He went on to infiltrate the place and become–by all accounts–a very successful businessman. His China views aren’t widely known, but I would posit that, after his time in China, he has a pretty good idea of how the place works. But I would also posit, cautiously, that China has a pretty good idea of how he works, too.
After returning from his tour in China, Mr. Bilden came home, skillfully built ties in the Navy though the War College Foundation (interesting route to influence, by the way, and, Bilden aside, it’s probably a route that deserves a little more scrutiny by CI professionals), donated to Mr. Trump’s campaign, and got his name into play for the big chair.
And here we are.
How’d he Win?
Philip Bilden wasn’t supposed to be SECNAV. Congressman Forbes was the safe choice to lead the Navy–as an early advocate for the Trump Administration and a long-standing advocate for the U.S. Navy–everyone considered Forbes to be a shoe-in for SECNAV and expected his nomination to be announced with remarkable speed.
It was obvious, right?
Of course!! As SECNAV, Forbes would have been a complete package–he knows the Navy backwards and forwards, he has friends in Congress, he had demonstrated his loyalty to the incoming Administration, and on and on. He’d have been great to run a naval buildup, populating the Navy Department with a network of super-competent staffers he groomed and circulated throughout Washington. Even I thought it was a no-brainer–a Forbes/Jerry Hendrix Team would keep the Navy afloat, pretty happy and they’d get to model out the next fleet and make a few innovations. Good times.
I was wrong.
So what happened? Well, in essence, Forbes probably was a victim of being TOO good at his job. With the help of Senator McCain, the Navy (CNO Richardson has played his cards VERY well and the Navy should be a bit more grateful than they are) and some others (ahem, watch this space next week), Washington DC was already socialized to the fact that a larger Navy was needed. The Trump Administration’s 350-ship Navy is primed for success, but that perception of inevitability made Mr. Forbes expendable.
My hope is that President Trump has another role in mind for Mr. Forbes, but I fear that Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon’s evident antipathy for DCish/Congressional types negatively influenced their personal chemistry. In addition, the fact that Forbes lost his seat probably didn’t help Forbes make his case.
Personal comparisons between Forbes and Bilden probably didn’t help either. Philip Bilden can instantly evoke images of a John Lehman–that vibrant Reagan-era SECNAV who grew the fleet towards six hundred ships.
Bilden was successful in every measure Mr. Trump values. Trump-like, Bliden was an outsider, fighting against an obvious favorite–a theme that probably resonated with Mr. Trump. Bilden had an inside line, having worked with Mr Trump’s national security consigliere, Little Mikey “Three Star” Flynn, on the Naval War College Foundation’s Cybersecurity Roundtable in mid 2016, and he made an impression on Admiral Stavridis. So he had an “in” with the White House and some high level coverage that may have been able to help Mattis digest the White House’s appointment of a new player in the “building”.
Forbes certainly knew all the players too, but he also has strong ties to Mike Pence, which, at this stage–with the still-getting-organized Trump Administration fighting for legitimacy and likely pretty suspicious of the potential future internal threat from a Congressionally-supported Pence insurgency–probably didn’t add much to the Forbes balance sheet either.
I’m speculating here. But for some reason, while I mull this new appointee, I can’t help but recall a line from the Godfather, where Michael tells Tom that he’s not a wartime consigliere–I could see President Trump picking Bilden over Forbes, and responding with a shrug, saying, “that’s no reflection on Forbes, it’s just the way I want it.”
Mr. Trump may have some plans for the Navy that may not gibe with Mr. Forbes’s vision of how things should be.
What To Watch:
Mr. Bilden has yet to publicly discuss his vision for the Navy. We shall see how his pre-confirmation Congressional engagements go, but I’d wager he’ll need to hew pretty closely with Senator McCain’s vision for the future Navy–either that, or his nomination hearing will get really interesting really fast.
I’ll also wager that he will commit to converting or rolling back many of Secretary Mabus’ ancillary priorities. Think what you will, but Mabus’ did his replacement a “solid” by giving him a ton of low-cost/big-benefit political chips to cash in with Congress.
I suspect Mr. Bilden will be a pretty savvy SECNAV. Should be an interesting ride.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for at his hearing:
Forbes’ Allies: It’ll be interesting to see how roughly may of Forbes’ Fleet buddies treat Bilden–but I doubt their resistance will be little more than a token sternly-worded finger-wag about fleet size. Congress won’t fuss.
Fleet Priorities: My sense is that Bilden–depending upon his marching orders–will hew to McCain’s expectations. There will be some modifications here and there–Looking at his past experience, I’d suggest he may have found the Army’s old logistics-minded “Navy” to be useful, and I’ll bet that intelligence-oriented platforms, gadgets and missions will be well-funded. Tenth Fleet and SPAWAR will be happy. That’s all well and good by me.
China: There is a lot of concern floating around out there about Bilden’s China ties. Nobody can be successful in Chinese business without developing close ties to the Chinese government and Chinese military. We don’t know what those ties may be, how they might be influencing Mr. Bilden, and we certainly don’t know if Bilden participated any quid-pro-quo or bribes or other activities required to thrive in the rough and tumble world of Chinese business. If the Chinese government knows and acts on some infraction even peripherally related to Mr. Bilden’s Hong Kong tenure, it’ll hamper Mr. Bilden’s effectiveness.
Imagine, for example, if China loudly and publicly pulled in a bunch of Bilden’s former associates for “trumped up” corruption accusations right during his hearing. There are all kinds of angles the Chinese can play here, and that’s a bomb the Senate and Mr. Bilden should cooperatively explore and hopefully defuse during the confirmation hearings.
If I were a Senator I’d also like to know if Mr. Bilden is close to Jared Kushner. Jared has tapped Chinese funds to advance domestic development projects, and, just a few days ago, was seen with the head of Anbang. Anbang, if you recall, was recently blocked on security grounds from buying the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, California, which overlooks a naval base where US Navy SEAL troops train. If they are close, then there should be a discussion of how the Trump Administration’s personal interests and investments in China might influence Navy strategy and decision-making.
I personally want to know what (if any) relationship Mr. Bilden has or had with Erik Prince–when a victimized Erik Prince was sulking in Hong Kong, pretending–all while regularly popping home–to be in some sort of forced expat exile AND sucking up to the Chinese government with an African security get-rich-quick scheme, they may have crossed paths. As I have noted before, Erik is not a good manager, and the Navy (and DoD) must do everything it can to keep that guy at arms length. Let Prince go do tightly controlled tactical stuff of limited scope for the intelligence services someplace–it’s what he wants to do anyway.
Ultimately, I am particularly interested to know just how transactional (or confrontational) Mr. Bilden might be with regards to China. Forbes was a staunch anti-China player, and I’ll be watching to see if Mr. Bilden differentiated from Mr. Forbes here. If China engagement–even a choppy, fractious engagement–is a Trump Administration goal, a SECNAV who is fluent in Mandarin is probably pretty useful–but I’d still want to know more about how the Administration intends to approach China.
Strategy Beyond the Deckplates: I expect Mr. Bilden to take a pretty sophisticated approach to maritime strategy, expanding the aperture of conflict and reversing the Navy’s effort to limit their mission to “conventional” warfighting at sea. I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how Mr. Bilden employs maritime strategy in a larger sense–Maritime power isn’t just about the ships. It’s about leveraging finance, economics, and other tools in pursuit of national maritime aims–and Bilden might be the right guy to expand the Navy’s aperture a bit. Hopefully the Senate will try to draw a bit of that out.
Ethics: I know it’s not trendy in this new “a Norm is just a character in an old sitcom” environment, but a good ethical foundation is important to me. Lehman was a great SECNAV, but his fast, loose and out-of-control pursuit of his 600-ship goal ultimately was his undoing. Fresh off Fat Leonard, the service doesn’t need another Ill Wind-esque scandal rocking it’s senior leadership.
In that regard, I’d be pleased if Bilden took some preemptive steps to protect the rest of his defense-oriented family, helping them from getting accidentally ensnared in something that could be construed the wrong way. Bilden also has children in the Navy as well (is that…a first for a SECNAV?), and I’d like the Navy to ensure that those officers’ careers are not aversely impacted by their Dad’s posting. Bilden has more “skin in the game” than most, and you’d be a fool to not think that carries with it some real weight on the guy.
A Big Question:
One of the big questions for everybody is how the Navy will pay for this fleet expansion? Mr. Trump certainly believes that security trumps deficit concerns, so…a battle of the budget/deficit hawks is looming, and a big new fleet–even if Congress is happy to fund it–will still be a difficult task with Trump’s budget hawk roosting over at OMB. (My low-budget suggestions on how to bulk up the fleet in a hurry is here, by the way.)
So, if there is an ambitious building program in the Navy’s future, I want to know how Mr. Bilden intends to pay for it.
As part of that discovery effort, I’d encourage Mr. Bilden to encourage Acting SECNAV Sean Stackley to stick around. Unless the President demands a clean slate at DoD (or if Sean really needs a break OR if there’s something more prestigious farther up in the DoD hierarchy he could fill), Mr. Bilden would be a fool to swap Stackley out for somebody else–Stackley knows all the budget levers and toggles–he’s an integral piece in getting a bigger fleet funded. I’ve made the case for keeping Mr. Stackley here.
Aside from that, for a new guy who isn’t familiar with the Pentagon or the patterns of life in the Capital, there’s no better trainer to have than Mr. Stackley. Mr. Stackley really is a national treasure. He is the consummate public servant–he’s loyal, steeped in the Navy, works harder than anybody, and he knows how to hit hard, move fast and keep his trap shut. He’s been on the job, working as the Navy’s Procurement Chief, since the Bush Administration–one of the longest-serving Assistant Secretaries of the Navy since, oh FDR.
If DC is a swamp, Stackley is that little piece of high-ground, solid, uncorrupted, looming over the mire. Hope he wants and gets a chance to stick around to help the new SECNAV, Mr. Bilden.