A Centerville High School graduate who was the acting secretary of the Air Force will become the chief of staff for newly installed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, according to the Pentagon.
Eric Fanning has been serving as under secretary of the Air Force prior to the new defense chief selecting him for the key role at the Department of Defense.
“I think it’s a very smart pick because he has been under secretary of the Air Force, which is the No. 2 job,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a former under secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “The great irony is Carter probably doesn’t need that” since he left the Pentagon about a year ago in the No. 2 spot as deputy defense secretary, Korb said.
Carter was sworn into office Tuesday for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s second term, replacing outgoing secretary and former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who resigned.
The defense secretary’s chief of staff is a key Pentagon post because the person determines priorities in high-level meetings, sees the secretary and spends time on Capitol Hill talking to congressional leaders on defense priorities and issues, Korb said.
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“I think it is good to have someone in that position, just as he was as under secretary of the Air Force, who understands the great importance Wright-Patterson has not only to the Defense Department but to the region,” said former U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, R-Springfield. “He’s in a very strong position working for a very strong guy. The problem is they don’t have very much time to get things done.”
The Defense Department will face the continued fight against the terrorist group Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, concerns over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and a push to “pivot” to the Asia Pacific as it deals with aging weapon systems, a smaller force and spending that could be struck by the return of sequestration in October.
As a top civilian leader at the Air Force, Fanning has been in the midst of sequestration, or automatic budget cuts, that caused the furloughs of thousands of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base civil service workers and sharp spending cuts to operations in 2013.
In an exclusive November 2013 interview with this newspaper, Fanning said the “real pernicious effect of sequestration” was “lack of flexibility” in the across-the-board cuts. He said the furloughs of civilian workers were “the hardest and worst decision” made in fiscal year 2013.
Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president of federal programs, said Tuesday sequestration will be the number one budget issue Fanning will have to contend with, as he did in high-level posts at the Air Force.
“The biggest foreseeable headache for the administration within the Department of Defense will be making plans when the department does not know what its budget is going to be and won’t find out until it’s too late to react,” he said.
Miami Valley leaders were struck by Fanning’s candidness about problems sequestration created when they flew to Washington in an annual pilgrimage to the offices of congressional lawmakers, Gessel said.
“He gave a very impressive and insightful and frank presentation to the group,” Gessel said. “From the Dayton region perspective, he knows the Air Force thoroughly, and that will help us.”
Fanning is a 1986 graduate Centerville High School who earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1990 from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
He returned to Centerville to talk to students in 2013, said high school principal Jon Wesney.
“The security detail that was here was pretty impressive,” Wesney said. “(He had) a great sense of humor, too. He kept the kids engaged.”
Fanning was the acting secretary of the Air Force for about six months after Michael B. Donley stepped down as Air Force secretary in June 2013. Defense industry executive Deborah Lee James was later confirmed as Donley’s successor.
Among other jobs, Fanning was a deputy under secretary in the Navy, an associate producer at CBS News in New York City, a public relations executive, and a congressional and White House staffer within the Clinton administration.
“He is a very intelligent and likable person,” Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an email. “He’s been at the Pentagon throughout the administration in top jobs for both the Navy and the Air Force, so he has a lot of current experience he will bring with him. I think one of the things he is well-positioned to do is help bring outside ideas to the attention of the secretary — help piece the bubble that often surrounds senior officials.”