US Senate Confirms Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense

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The United States Senate on January 22 confirmed Lloyd Austin as the new secretary of defense. Austin, a former commander of the U.S. Central Command, becomes the first ever African American to hold that office. Austin’s Senate confirmation was near unanimous, with 93 votes in his favor versus two against. He was confirmed through the Senate floor vote after obtaining a waiver on January 21 from both houses of U.S. Congress, required by law for former military officers nominated to head the Pentagon within seven years of their retirement from armed services.

Former President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, James Mattis, had to seek a similar waiver, after having served in the United States Marine Corps all through his career, and retiring, like Austin, as CENTCOM chief.

Then-President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Austin for the defense secretary’s position in December had come as a surprise to many watchers of U.S. defense policy. In the run-up and immediate aftermath of the November 3 presidential elections, analysts had believed Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, to be the top contender for the position.

In an opinion piece in The Atlantic on December 9, the day he nominated Austin for the job, Biden had explained his rationale behind the choice, noting Austin’s service and leadership in Iraq.

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“…Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face. He is the person we need in this moment,” Biden wrote, noting the crucial role his secretary of defense would play in managing the logistics of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

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But Biden’s description of the national security challenges that the United States faces – “from pandemics to climate change, from nuclear proliferation to the refugee crisis” – coupled with Austin’s lack of familiarity with the Indo-Pacific theater (which, by definition, ends where CENTCOM’s area of responsibility begins) led to a fresh round of social and traditional media speculations about the direction of Biden’s China policy — and whether he’d tone down the great-power-competition posture that his predecessor, at least on paper, had so stridently promoted.

At least till we see concrete details of how Biden’s foreign policy shapes up over the course of next few months, for the time being it seems that Austin will broadly follow the template set by his predecessors, Mattis among others.

When asked about the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy during the course of nomination hearings at the Senate Armed Services Committee by chairman Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, Austin had said: “I think much of the document is absolutely on track for today’s challenges, Mr. Chairman. As is the case with all strategies — if confirmed — one of the things that I would look to do is to work to update the strategy and work within the confines of the guidance and the policy issued by the next administration.”


“We’ll have to have capabilities that allow us to hold – to present a credible threat, a credible deterrent, excuse me, to China in the future. We’ll have to make some strides in the use of quantum computing, the use of AI [artificial intelligence], the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms. Those kinds of things I think can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need to be able to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk,” Austin was also quoted by USNI News as saying.

Biden’s defense secretary pick promises laser-like focus on China

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NEW YORK – A U.S. Senate committee backed retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary on Thursday, sending him a step closer to becoming the first African American to hold the post.

The former four-star general was easily granted a waiver by both houses of Congress from the seven-year “cooling-off period” needed before a retired service member can return to lead the Pentagon.

While there had been initial opposition toward Austin becoming defense chief so soon after retiring in 2016, the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 made it difficult for lawmakers to block the confirmation.

After the House voted 326-78 to approve the exemption on Thursday, the Senate quickly followed with a 69-27 approval. The back-to-back votes put Austin in position to be confirmed as secretary by the full Senate on Friday.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, President Joe Biden’s nominee addressed the importance of Asia.

“Globally I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” Austin told senators.

Responding to Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s question on not having had experience in the Asia-Pacific – the former four-star general spent a large portion of his career in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States Central Command with forward headquarters in Qatar – Austin said that was because “the Middle East, for quite some time, was … the most important thing for our country.”

“But if confirmed, you can expect that … I’ll put a laser-like focus on developing the right capabilities, plans, operational concepts, that’ll ensure that we maintain a competitive edge,” with respect to China, he promised.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt conducts flight operations in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Austin acknowledged the complexity surrounding U.S. relations with China.

“I fully recognize that while I have the military component of this problem set, it’s a whole-of-government approach because China looks to compete with us along a spectrum of activities,” he said.

Austin’s nomination heads to the full Senate for confirmation. Both houses of Congress on Thursday granted a waiver from a law that required him to wait seven years after active duty service before taking the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Austin retired in 2016.

The West Point graduate was the head of U.S. forces in Iraq and has led troops at almost every level.

Democratic Party leaders want to confirm cabinet members and other key officials quickly, after Biden was sworn into office on Wednesday.

Senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties brought their national security concerns to Austin. They cited China, working with allies and American defense technology.

“They’re already a regional hegemon and I think their goal is to be a dominant world power,” Austin said of China.

“And they are working across the spectrum to compete with us in a number of areas, and it will take a whole-of-government approach to push back on their efforts in a credible way,” he said. “Not to say that we won’t see things down the road that are in our best interest [to] cooperate with China on.

When asked how Austin would respond to China’s efforts to develop a military that matches or surpasses that of the U.S., he said that he “would intend to make sure that never happens.”

Taiwan also was mentioned during the confirmation hearing, as senators asked whether Austin would be ready to support the self-governed island if Beijing decided to take it by force.

“Our efforts will be to ensure that we do everything to make sure that China doesn’t take that decision,” Austin said. “But our support to Taiwan has been rock solid over the years and has been [of] bipartisan support. We’ve been strong in our commitments, and certainly I’ll make sure that we’re living up to our commitments to support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.”

Restoring relationships with U.S. allies is a focus of the Biden administration. Having worked with allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Austin said he thinks the military performs better when working as a part of a team.

“I truly believe that you can’t just show up and fight and be effective,” he said. “I think that these relationships have to be developed. You have to train, work and live together in order to have an effective, incredible fighting force.

“I think that fighting as a part of a coalition is absolutely a part of who we are, something that we treasure. I’ll look forward to re-establishing some of the critical partnerships and alliances that we’ve had, and working with our allies to make sure that we keep them on board as we move forward fast.”

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the uncontested technological advantage held by the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s has faded, with some suggesting that the country “may not be ahead in many places.”

Austin said much work is needed to transform the Department of Defense.

“Our acquisition system needs to be more agile and more responsive,” he said. “We need to develop the operational concepts that support those new capabilities to make sure that we continue to present a credible deterrent.”

Austin confirmed as nation’s first African American defense secretary

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“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” Austin said in a statement on Twitter after his confirmation. “Let’s get to work.”



President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 9 nominated retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to become his defense secretary. Here’s what you should know about him. (The Washington Post)

Austin faces the task of accelerating and expanding the Defense Department’s involvement in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines. He also must restore alliances that frayed during President Donald Trump’s tenure, make hard choices in the Pentagon budget to compete with a rising Chinese military and deal with questions about possible internal threats.

Austin, 67, is likely to also face the task of fully winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, a goal that President Biden’s two predecessors campaigned on but failed to achieve.

For Austin to be confirmed, the House and Senate first had to pass a waiver exempting him from a law that requires defense secretaries to be out of uniform for seven years before occupying the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Austin retired in 2016; Congress granted him the waiver Thursday.



Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that the Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe. (The Washington Post)

Austin’s confirmation caps a career in which the Thomasville, Ga., native and U.S. Military Academy graduate has notched a number of firsts, becoming the first African American to command an infantry division in combat and the first African American to lead U.S. Central Command, the unit of the U.S. military responsible for operations in the Middle East.

An African American first ascended to the uniformed military’s top post in 1989, when Colin L. Powell became the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would take more than 31 additional years for an African American to be chosen as the Pentagon’s top civilian leader, a lag that Austin described as troublesome in video comments before his confirmation.

“It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” Austin said. “There is kind of a sad commentary here, and that is, it shouldn’t have taken us this long to get here. There should have been someone that preceded me.”



While Austin’s arrival in the Pentagon’s top civilian post breaks down a racial barrier, ­African Americans remain underrepresented in the highest-level officer positions in the armed forces. Austin has said that he hopes to set conditions so other Black officers can be put in the leadership roles he held during his military career, and that he wants to ensure that while he may be the first Black defense secretary, he will not be the last.

Many former national security officials in Washington had been expecting Biden to break a different barrier in his defense secretary nomination by choosing Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon policy chief, to be the first woman to hold the post. But Biden developed a personal relationship with Austin while the general commanded U.S. forces in Iraq during the Obama administration. Biden’s late son, Beau, served on Austin’s staff while deployed to Iraq.

Biden signed the law granting Austin an exclusion Friday and described his defense secretary’s confirmation as historic in a message on Twitter. “I look forward to working with him to lead our military, revitalize our alliances, and ensure the safety of the American people,” Biden said, describing Austin as the right person to lead the Defense Department at this moment.



Where more-swashbuckling Army generals such as David H. Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal became political forces in their own right amid the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Austin cut the opposite profile, remaining private and unusually reserved for a four-star general — an understated style he is likely to maintain in the role of defense secretary.

John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who now runs the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the two foundational decisions that have been shaping the Defense Department in recent years — the pivot to Asia started by President Barack Obama and the national security strategy outlined by Trump defense secretary Jim Mattis identifying China as the U.S. military’s primary focus — are likely to stay the same under Biden.

“So the things that shape defense budgets are not going to change in significant ways,” Hamre said.



Austin arrived at the Pentagon for his first day of work midday Friday after the confirmation vote and, after being sworn in, received an intelligence briefing from department leaders. He then met with David Norquist, the deputy defense secretary appointed by Trump, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark A. Milley. Austin chaired a coronavirus briefing attended by Norquist, Milley and other top Pentagon leaders and spoke by phone with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before receiving operational briefings about China and the Middle East later in the day.

After Austin arrived at the Pentagon, he received a call from Biden, who congratulated him on his swift confirmation and thanked him for agreeing to serve the country again, according to a statement from Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

“Secretary Austin expressed his gratitude to the President for his trust and confidence and for his support during the confirmation process,” Kirby said.



Biden has said he spent countless hours with Austin in the Situation Room during the Obama administration and also saw the personal side of the general, who attended Catholic services along with Biden’s son Beau every week while on deployment.

In an email message to the force, sent upon arriving at the Pentagon, Austin said his job is to make U.S. service members more effective at their own jobs.

“That means ensuring you have the tools, technology, weapons, and training to deter and defeat our enemies,” he said. “It means establishing sound policy and strategy and assigning you clear missions. It means putting a premium on cooperation with our allies and partners. And it means living up to our core values, the same ones our fellow citizens expect of us.”


Austin has made it clear that his first priority as defense secretary is to bring all of the Pentagon’s resources to bear on the administration’s effort to combat the coronavirus and speed up the distribution and delivery of vaccine.


In his message to the force, Austin said the military can expect to continue aiding the nation’s health-care professionals in the fight to end the pandemic.

“But we must help the Federal Government move further and faster to eradicate the devastating effects of the coronavirus,” Austin wrote. “To that end, we will also do everything we can to vaccinate and care for our workforce and to look for meaningful ways to alleviate the pressure this pandemic has exerted on you and your families.”


Austin faces the challenge of restoring critical military alliances that Trump strained while in office, despite the best efforts of his Pentagon leaders to nurture the decades-old bonds with nations in Europe and Asia. The secretary must also see through Biden’s plans to undo Trump’s restrictions on transgender troops and probably to walk back Trump’s orders to draw down a large swath of U.S. forces stationed in Germany. He will also be tasked with improving the military’s handling of sexual assault within its ranks, an issue that despite attention from senior leaders has continued to pose significant problems for the force.


Austin will need to chart a course for the future of the U.S. military and the nation’s $750 billion national defense budget as China develops increasingly sophisticated technology and threatens to eclipse the might of an American force that has held undisputed dominance for decades.

Because he served on the board of the defense contractor Raytheon after retiring, Austin has agreed to recuse himself from Pentagon matters regarding the company for the next four years. He was still listed as a board member Friday, but the company is expected to post a notification announcing his resignation in the coming days. According to his confirmation disclosure, Austin will divest from Raytheon within 90 days of his confirmation.

During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin pledged to root out any extremism in the force. He also promised to respect the tenet of civilian control over the U.S. military enshrined in the Constitution, by surrounding himself with civilian appointees and including them in critical decisions, rather than relying on uniformed service members or a cadre of retired officers.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were the lawmakers who voted against Austin’s nomination Friday.

A far larger contingent of senators, however, voted against giving Austin a waiver, citing concerns about eroding the tenet of civilian control over the military. Austin is the second defense secretary in just over four years to receive a waiver, after Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and Trump’s first nominee for the position, was granted an exception to the law.

On Thursday, the House approved Austin’s waiver first, by a vote of 326 to 78. The Senate followed suit about an hour later, backing the waiver by a vote of 69 to 27.

Before the confirmations of Austin and Mattis, only one individual had ever received such a waiver: George C. Marshall Jr., who was granted an exception by Congress to serve as Harry S. Truman’s defense secretary from 1950 to 1951.