A pair of frontrunners have emerged to take charge at the Pentagon after President Barack Obama announced the departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
If former under-secretary Michele Flournoy gets the nod, she would be the first woman to hold the role, and neither she nor former deputy secretary Ashton Carter have served in uniform.
Now working as policy academics, Flournoy and Carter have been mentioned for years as possible Pentagon leaders.
Both have served under Democratic presidents going back to the 1990s, and both received support from both sides of Congress after Obama announced Hagel’s resignation.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee which would vet the nominees, said in a tweet that both Flournoy and Ashton are “solid choices.”
Flournoy, 53, has been a face in and around the Department of Defense for decades, a civilian woman make headway in an agency filled with men and military veterans.
“She has really had a fine career and is an excellent candidate for this job,” said Kathy Crandall Robinson, a senior director at nonprofit Women’s Action for New Directions in Washington.
Robinson said women have led in foreign policy for years, but breaking the gender divide in defense has been difficult.
“There have been a number of women coming up, but in the actual Defense Department it’s breaking new ground so that would be really exciting,” she said on Flournoy’s potential nomination.
First serving in defense in Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration, Flournoy has made a name for herself in bipartisan defense circles as a policy wonk and strategist in Washington’s think tank world.
She worked at the government’s National Defense University, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies before co-founding the Center for a New American Security in 2007.
CNAS is seen as the DC think tank closest to President Barack Obama’s administration, and Flournoy and her colleagues have used it as a launching pad for top administration positions.
Staff at CNAS fashioned themselves as experts on the currents of strategy from the nation’s two recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009, Flournoy left the think tank and made waves when she took a top tier defense department post as undersecretary of defense for policy, the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon’s history.
In her position she was central in fashioning the country’s plan for a surge of forces in Afghanistan to try to bring a form of conclusion to a war that has stumbled on for more than a decade.
The counterinsurgency-focused plan had mixed results and increased casualty rates among US forces.
Since leaving the defense department in 2012, Flournoy has worked at the Boston Consulting Group.
Flournoy signaled her interest in reentering the political world this year when she returned to CNAS as its chief executive in May.
Also rumored to being considered for the Pentagon’s top spot is former defense hand and physicist Ashton Carter.
The 60-year-old has served twice in Obama’s administration, first as technology and acquisition undersecretary from 2009 to 2011 and then as the Pentagon number two, deputy secretary of defense.
A Yale graduate with a degree in physics, Carter served in the Clinton administration and assumed a role crafting the country’s nuclear weapons policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Carter is an academic policy expert with deep knowledge of the Defense Department’s workings, particularly in science and technology and in budget issues during recent military cutbacks.
He is known for expediting procurement for the military in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Carter directed the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in the early 90s, taught physics at Oxford and has various fellowships and board positions based on his defense and science credentials.
Carter lives in Washington and holds a non-resident position at Harvard.
Also reportedly under consideration for secretary of defense is current Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. Work is a military veteran who is a policy and budget expert.
Previously Work was undersecretary of the navy and in 2008 he worked on Obama’s defense transition team.
US Senator from Rhode Island and military veteran Jack Reed has distanced himself from the competition for the post after early reports that he was under consideration.