The 56-year-old Shanahan is an MIT-trained engineer and 31-year veteran of Boeing, most recently as a senior vice president for supply chain and operations, who acquired the nickname Mr. Fix-It for turning around beleaguered programs such as the development of the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet. Shanahan, who was reportedly not Mattis’s first choice for the deputy job, is a technocratic program manager through and through.
Read: James Mattis’s letter of resignation
Mattis seasons his remarks with quotes from statesmen and strategists such as Winston Churchill and George Shultz. Shanahan, by contrast, refers to a Pentagon office as the “obeya room” in homage to the Japanese corporate problem-solving technique, and cites Kodak as a cautionary tale for the consequences of failing to innovate. Whereas Mattis cast the National Defense Strategy as a means of bequeathing the free world as we know it to the next generation, Shanahan noted how “a risk-balanced, opportunity-driven approach will spark innovation and help protect our hard-earned culture of excellence from the unintended distortion of budgetary instability.”
While visiting U.S. soldiers in Iraq over Christmas, Trump praised Shanahan as a “good buyer” of military equipment, not some master strategist. “I’m in no rush” to replace him, the president declared. (Shanahan is only the third defense secretary to serve on an interim basis since the position was created in 1947.)
Shanahan has embraced some of the president’s pet projects. He’s championed increased sales of U.S.-made military goods and services to other countries, for example, and led Pentagon efforts to establish a new Space Force (an initiative Mattis at first resisted).
Riki Ellison, a friend of Shanahan’s and the chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonpartisan organization that aims to build public support for missile-defense systems, told me that Shanahan’s competitive nature is useful at a time when the U.S. military is jockeying with China and Russia in domains ranging from space to the processes by which each power acquires its military capabilities. (Such acquisitions are what Shanahan “does best,” he said.)
But Shanahan can come across as less enthused about Trump’s ideas themselves than making the ideas work—of ingeniously solving the president’s problems, like a good engineer. “It’s pretty exciting,” he has said of the Space Force. “Over a very short period of time, it’s been thrust upon us to create and grow a new organization.”
“He’s not gonna dictate. He’s gonna follow what the president’s intent is,” Ellison said. Shanahan, who is succeeding a man Trump reportedly resented for slow-walking his directives, is “an efficient doer of things,” he told me.
As the aviation journalist Jon Ostrower, who spent years covering Shanahan at Boeing, recently wrote, Mr. Fix-It enjoyed “exemplary” relationships with his superiors at the company because he made sure “the leadership delivered what it promised.” Some observers, including the late Senator John McCain, have voiced concern that, beyond the president hitting it off with a fellow businessman at the Defense Department, a suspiciously cozy relationship is developing between the Trump administration and Boeing, one of the nation’s leading defense contractors. Ethics rules require Shanahan to recuse himself from Boeing-related matters at the Pentagon.