Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III arrived at the Pentagon today and hit the ground running, greeting the senior staff and then immediately heading into meetings on combating the coronavirus.
The Senate confirmed Austin at 11 a.m.; the vote was 93-2. He arrived at the Pentagon around noon and was “administratively sworn in” soon afterward.
Austin chaired a COVID-19 briefing attended by Deputy Secretary David L. Norquist, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, members of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Staff, DOD COVID-19 Coordinator Max Rose, the acting service secretaries, the service military chiefs and combatant commanders. The Senate and the House of Representatives waived the requirement that a defense secretary must have been retired seven years before assuming the position. Austin assured congressional leaders that he fully believes in civilian control of the U.S. military.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin addressed this issue. “I was a general and a soldier, and I’m proud of that,” he said. “But today, I appear before you as a citizen, the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia, and I’m proud of that, too. If you confirm me, I am prepared to serve now as a civilian, fully acknowledging the importance of this distinction.”
Austin, a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., retired from the Army as the commander of U.S. Central Command in 2016.
In some of his first acts, Austin is contacting allies and partners around the world to assure them of America’s security commitments. His first call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is proof of the importance Austin places on allies.
Conquering COVID tops the immediate list of missions, but Austin also must configure the department to face China, which he called America’s “pacing threat” in his testimony. He also must consider the actions and strategy of a resurgent Russia. Iran remains a U.S. concern in the Middle East, and U.S. troops are still deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. North Korea is a wild card in the Indo-Pacific.
Threats from violent extremism remain. Although the physical caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been eliminated, remnants of the group are still dangerous, DOD officials have said. Other groups, which share the toxic ideology, exist in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Austin also must keep his eyes on the future, continuing to build a department that has the capabilities needed to deter any foe and, if deterrence fails, to defeat that threat.