Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives at the Pentagon and will likely have to get right to work forging a plan to defeat ISIS and tackling budget and staffing issues.
Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is expected to spend part of the first few months traveling to visit troops abroad and reassuring allies in Europe and Asia. But, experts say, there may be unexpected world events that could upset his plans.
"There are wildcards of unexpected world events that could intrude," said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program in Washington, D.C. "Those are very hard to predict."
Mattis will have a critical role in shaping and implementing President Donald Trump's plan to rebuild the U.S. military, including adding more troops, ships, and aircraft. The former general also may be asked to help sway members of Congress to undo the sequestration budget caps to allow for more defense spending.
Moreover, his new job makes him a key part of Trump's "America First" strategy, which the White House website touts as including "defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups."
"From a sort of geopolitical perspective, I think that ISIS is probably one of the top priorities," said Roman Schweizer, a defense industry analyst at Cowen. "Internally, the priority is getting the budgetary house in order and trying to figure out what kind of money they can put towards the Trump defense buildup."
A U.S.-led coalition has deployed special forces to fight ISIS, or Islamic State, and had success with ground raids and bombing campaigns in the Middle East region against fighters and leaders of the terror group. A report this week suggested the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was critically injured by a coalition bombing strike.
As part of a campaign pledge, Trump promised to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS within the first 30 days of his presidency. Analysts say the plan could include increasing the number of special forces in the region, putting in more Marines, or having actual ground forces and additional aircraft.
"There is no easy button for ISIS," said Tom Mullen, a Boston-based defense industry expert for PA Consulting Group. "This is a… complex problem, but we do have a lot of good plans to draw on. We're not starting from scratch here by any means."
That said, there's also a chance the Trump administration could make a deal with Russia to work together defeating ISIS.
The territory occupied by the militant group has been shrinking over the past year although ISIS continues to have a stronghold on the Iraq city of Mosul and Raqqa in Syria. Moreover, ISIS fighters have been getting more tech savvy, with recent video showing the terror group using drones to drop bombs.
Mattis was asked during a Senate committee confirmation hearing Jan. 12 about the need to develop a strategy to combat ISIS in other regions of the world where the U.S. might not be focusing.
"The way we do this, I think we have to deliver a very hard blow against ISIS in the Middle East so that there is no sense of invulnerability or invincibility there," Mattis told the panel. "There has got to be a military defeat of them there."
Meantime, another front-burner issue for Mattis is the defense budget since the Trump administration is expected next month to deliver its so-called skinny budget detailing the new direction that the White House is going across the entire government.
"On the budget, the calendar drives him to make a lot of budget decisions and get into a lot of budget issues whether he wants to or not," said Cancian.
Cowen's Schweizer, a former Navy acquisition profession, said Mattis has spent a large part of his career in the operational part of defense and doing actual war fighting and probably will find the arcane process of budgeting and acquisition "pretty dreadful."
The administration and GOP-led Congress need a fiscal 2017 defense appropriations bill and its early draft of its fiscal 2018 defense spending. Analysts say there's a good possibility we could see both fiscal 2017 and 2018 funding under discussion simultaneously in April.
The continuing resolution that Congress reached last month to fund defense and other federal government operations in fiscal 2017 runs out at the end of April so there will need to be a spending bill for the entire fiscal year passed or another CR enacted.
The repeal of the budget caps was discussed by lawmakers during nomination hearings but as of now there's been no legislation presented to formally repeal the sequestration. Repeal of the Budget Control Act cannot happen unless there's at least 60 votes in the Senate, and with Republicans having just 52 members in the chamber they would need support from some Democrats too.
Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. defense spending involves personnel costs. There are about 26,500 people working at the Pentagon, with the majority of them civilian workers performing functions such as building maintenance, administrative support and force protection, among other things.
Additionally, there also are around 60 political positions within the Department of Defense — all appointed by the president. They include influential posts such as the deputy secretary, under secretary posts, general counsel as well as the secretaries of different military service branches, among others.
"There's still a whole lot of work to get done picking the right team — and forming them into a team so they're not just a bunch of people in offices," said Thomas Spoehr, a director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Experts say the Defense secretary is usually kept in the loop about such DoD nominations and sometimes has input too since the posts are seen as critical to forming the Pentagon's senior leadership team.
Yet Mattis was surprised when he learned from a news report that the president picked Vincent Viola as Army Secretary, according to the Washington Post. Viola, an Army veteran and billionaire owner of the Florida Panthers, is the former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange and a co-founder of high-frequency trading firm Virtu Financial.
"Mattis as agency head wants to bring in a bunch of technocrats who will help him implement his program — and the White House, not surprisingly, wants to put in campaign members and people that they know and trust," said Cancian.
Besides the Army secretary, another key DoD political appointment was Trump's pick of former Rep. Heather Wilson as the next Air Force secretary. Fewer than half of the political positions at Defense have been filled by the Trump administration.
The White House was contacted for this story but didn't respond at deadline. Mattis wasn't available for comment.