That would bump Randy Forbes, a former Virginia lawmaker credited with helping form Trump’s navy plans.
In a surprise twist to Donald Trump’s search for a new secretary of the navy, a financier with a background in private equity has emerged as the leading candidate for the navy’s top civilian position, two sources close to the transition process tell Foreign Policy.
Philip Bilden, a former managing director of HarbourVest who is a relative unknown to the Washington foreign policy community, has zoomed to the top of Trump’s shortlist, according to naval sources.
The development has stunned backers of former Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes, viewed by many as the architect of the president-elect’s campaign pledge to invest more in the U.S. Navy. While in office, Forbes pushed aggressively for the United States to counter Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific with a 350-ship Navy and a $20 billion annual shipbuilding budget.
Key planks of Trump’s campaign pledge to modernize the Navy’s aging cruiser fleet and add new ships were reportedly lifted from Forbes’s policy proposals.
By contrast, there is little in the public domain about Bilden’s views on U.S. seapower and the military. He is a director of the Naval War College Foundation, and serves as the chair of the Foundation’s cyber task force.
A number of longtime navy watchers said they’d never heard of Bilden and were surprised he shot to the top of the list to run the Navy. “I don’t know that name,” said Chris Harmer, a naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
But Bilden has close ties to retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense; retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security adviser; and retired Navy admiral James Stavridis, the current dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“I know him very well through his activities at the Naval War College, the Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Institute where I serve as chairman,” Stavridis told Foreign Policy during a phone call. “
“He is definitely in the running and I think he would be an exceptionally good candidate,” added Stavridis. “He definitely shares the view that we need a more robust, deployable navy… He’s lived in Hong Kong for decades, so he’s seen the rise of China first-hand.”
According to his online biography, Bilden and his family moved from Boston to Hong Kong in 1996 to establish HarbourVest’s Asian subsidiary, which invests in emerging markets. On Friday, a secretary at the private equity firm said Bilden is now “retired” and declined to provide contact information for him. When asked if he still lives in Hong Kong, the woman said he goes “back and forth.” The family is also active in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Naval War College is based.
He has served on the advisory boards of several major private equity firms, including Bain Capital Asia and Archer Capital.
Outside of his work in the financial world, Bilden and his wife Patricia appear to have taken an interest in philanthropy and in studying Asian security issues. He also serves on the Board of Visitors of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the Asia Pacific Advisory Board of Harvard Business School, and the Board of Directors of the United States Naval Academy Foundation.
But compared to the outsized profile Forbes had in naval circles, Bilden is a relative unknown to most.
“I heard someone named Phil was under consideration, but I’ve never encountered that name before,” said Bryan McGrath, a naval specialist at the Hudson Institute.