Although the transition between presidential terms is usually marked by large-scale personnel turnover at politically appointed government posts, sources said that this time, many of the most important leaders at the Pentagon are likely to stay, creating continuity in a time of fiscal uncertainty. Among them, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is expected to stay on for at least one year following confirmation of the top Defense Department job, according to Pentagon sources.
While it appears more and more likely that former Sen. Chuck Hagel will be confirmed to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Hagel will likely inherit much of his predecessor's team. Besides Carter, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and Robert Hale, Defense Department comptroller, are likely to remain, sources said.
According to a Pentagon official, the president asked Carter to stay in his current DoD post, a decision, sources added, was made easier because of the good relationship he has with Hagel.
Carter had been rumored as a candidate for Cabinet-level positions, but that possibility appears to have passed for the moment. Michael Vickers, who was considered for the job of CIA director, is thought likely to remain at DoD as well.
None of the decisions has been finalized, as Hagel will be given the option to push for his own people, but sources don't expect Hagel to rock the boat. Change is more likely to occur at the service head level, said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. But those decisions are likely to wait until a new secretary is settled, Thompson said. And while the staffs may remain similar, there will be a distinction in mandate and ideology between the current and likely defense chiefs.
"Personalities don't bulk large in this transition, but budget personalities do," he said. "Panetta is basically a status quo leader, whereas Hagel basically has to be a change agent."
Hagel is spending much of his time reassuring senators and preparing for confirmation hearings rather than picking staff, and Panetta spent the week on something of a farewell tour of Europe.
The one position that will turn over is DoD personnel chief, as Erin Conaton resigned Dec. 31 and no replacement has been selected. Conaton had been on a leave of absence for medical reasons since October. Given the growing expectation that personnel costs will be addressed in the next presidential term, the post could play a critical role in shaping defense fiscal policy.
At the press conference announcing Hagel's nomination, as well as the nomination of John Brennan as the next CIA director, President Barack Obama said the teams behind the two men would be critical to their ability to succeed.
"One of the reasons that I am so confident that Chuck Hagel is going to be an outstanding secretary of defense and John Brennan is going to be an outstanding director of the Central Intelligence Agency is they understand that we are only successful because of the folks up and down the line in these respective institutions," Obama said.