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Pat Shanahan
Pat Shanahan speaks at the opening of Boeing’s Seattle Delivery Center in 2015. Two years later, the Boeing executive was chosen to become deputy defense secretary. (GeekWire Photo / Jacob Demmitt)

President Donald Trump says Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, will take charge of the Pentagon on Jan. 1 in the wake of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ shocking resignation.

Trump announced Shanahan’s shift to the post of acting defense secretary today on Twitter, because of course he did:

As Mattis’ deputy, Shanahan focused on issues having to do with aerospace, in part because of his years of experience as a Boeing manager for projects ranging from commercial jets (737 to 787) to military rotorcraft (V-22 Osprey as well as Chinook and Apache helicopters) and missile defense systems.

Shanahan has been the point person for following through on the president’s pronouncements about creating a Space Force to raise the profile of military space operations. Last week, word emerged that the leading scenario calls for the Space Force to be housed under the Department of the Air Force’s administrative aegis, just as the Marine Corps’ org chart fits within the Department of the Navy.

Shanahan’s status as a Senate-confirmed deputy made him the natural choice to succeed Mattis as an interim Pentagon leader, but the official handover is coming sooner than expected. In his outspoken resignation letter, Mattis had said he would stay on until February to ensure an orderly transition.

With Trump’s announcement, Shanahan will have to get up to speed quickly on the issues that led to Mattis’ departure, such as the president’s surprise announcement that 2,000 U.S. forces would soon be withdrawn from Kurdish-held areas of Syria. Defense analysts fear that a hasty withdrawal will leave the Syrian Kurds, who have been among the steadiest U.S. allies in the region, vulnerable to bloody attacks from hostile Syrian government forces as well as from Turkey (which is also a U.S. ally in the Middle East’s “Great Game”).

Shanahan will also have to find a way to follow through on Trump’s order to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, another sore point for NATO allies.

It’s too early to say whom Trump will nominate as Mattis’ permanent replacement. Shanahan would arguably have the inside track, but questions are already being raised about his lack of experience in international affairs and his close connections to Boeing, one of the country’s biggest defense contractors.

Shanahan and his departing boss both have roots in the Pacific Northwest: Shanahan, 56, grew up in Washington state, got his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, and worked at Boeing from 1986 until his nomination to the Pentagon post last year. He served on UW’s Board of Regents from 2012 to 2017.

Mattis, a 68-year-old former Marine general, was born in Pullman, Wash., raised in Richland and graduated from Central Washington University in Ellensburg. One of his most relevant historical quotes reflects on what he would do if he ever came across a situation he couldn’t square with his moral compass.

“If I ever thought it was something immoral,” Mattis has been quoted as saying, “I’d be back fishing on the Columbia River tomorrow.”

Correction for 9:34 a.m. PT Dec. 24: We’ve revised this story to remove the implication that V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft were used by the U.S. Army. Thanks to @CorbeauSeattle for pointing that out. Also, we originally wrote that Shanahan was born in Aberdeen, Wash. — but that has been called into question, so we’re stepping back from that level of specificity until we can verify Shanahan’s birthplace with the Department of Defense.

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