Report

Top WMD Official Quietly Leaves Pentagon

Guy Roberts’s abrupt departure in April comes amid a long exodus of senior officials under acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Guy Roberts testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be assistant defense secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Nov. 2, 2017.
Guy Roberts testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be assistant defense secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Nov. 2, 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Guy Roberts, the U.S. Defense Department’s top civilian in charge of nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, quietly stepped down in April for reasons that remain murky, one of the latest in a series of high-profile exits from the Pentagon over the past six months.

The news of Roberts’s resignation comes on the heels of a report that Owen West, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, is also leaving his post, to spend more time with his family. The departures leave yet another hole in the Pentagon’s senior leadership, as acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan still waits for President Donald Trump to formally submit his nomination for the permanent job to the Senate. The Pentagon has now been without a permanent leader for nearly six months.

Robert Daigle, the director of the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, stepped down in May. Earlier departures in recent months included Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson; Phyllis Bayer, the Navy civilian in charge of energy, environment, and installations, including basing and housing; chief spokesperson Dana White; and Defense Secretary James Mattis himself, to name a few.

When contacted by Foreign Policy, a Pentagon spokesperson declined to provide an explanation for Roberts’s abrupt resignation.

“The department’s commitment to modernizing the department’s nuclear force and closely cooperating with allies and partners remains unwavering, and will result in the increased defense of the nation,” said Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a department spokesperson. “We appreciate his service to the department and wish him continued success.” Roberts submitted his resignation April 2 and left immediately, Andrews said.

As Shanahan faces new rumblings that Trump may be reconsidering the decision to name him as Mattis’s permanent replacement, many of the Pentagon’s seniormost positions are still vacant or filled a temporary basis. The list includes the deputy secretary of defense, two out of seven undersecretaries of defense, and nearly half the assistant secretaries of defense—among them the top civilian for international security affairs.

Shanahan’s chief of staff told _Foreign Policy_ earlier this month that the former Boeing executive plans to make appointing more women to the top posts a priority. But so far, Barbara Barrett, the nominee to replace Heather Wilson as secretary of the Air Force, is the only woman to have been tapped for a senior Pentagon position during Shanahan’s time in the job.

In his position at the Pentagon, which he has held since Nov. 30, 2017, Roberts led the enterprise responsible for ensuring the U.S. nuclear deterrent—missiles, submarines, and bombers—is safe, secure, and effective, as well as developing capabilities to counter weapons of mass destruction. He also was responsible for ensuring the Defense Department complies with nuclear, chemical, and biological treaties and agreements.

Roberts, a former U.S. Marine, has a long career working on arms control, WMDs, and nonproliferation issues. He previously served as acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for arms control and nonproliferation policy, and then as NATO’s deputy assistant secretary-general for weapons of mass destruction policy and director for nuclear deterrence policy.

In his written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of his confirmation hearing, Roberts said he would prioritize the modernization of the department’s nuclear arsenal and work to develop a nuclear posture “that’s responsive to today’s threats and challenges.”

During Roberts’s time at the Pentagon, Trump announced the decision to pull out of the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, sparking concerns of a new arms race. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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