Biden Transition News, Secretary of Defense, January 19, 2021

CABINET HEARING: Lloyd Austin III, Secretary of Defense 

January 19, 2021

Senate Armed Services Committee

Despite objections raised from Senators of both parties, the tone of the hearing reflected acceptance of Austin’s likely confirmation. A few senators expressed their unwillingness to make an exception to the seven-year rule to be appointed as Secretary of Defense after military service. 

 

ISSUES RAISED

  • Civilian Control of the Military and Waiver to Serve as Secretary – Both chambers must approve legislation waiving the rule that nominees for Secretaries of Defense have spent at least seven years out of the service before nomination to a civilian position. Austin committed throughout the hearing that he would uphold civilian control of the military and promised to empower his civilian staff. He committed to include his Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in top decision-making as well as “rebalance collaboration and coordination” between Office of the Secretary of Defense staff and the Joint Staff to ensure civilian input is made throughout every all-Pentagon processes. Some Senators opposed the waiver during the hearing, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who argued that waivers should never be granted and regretted granting one for General James Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense for President Trump. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also announced he would oppose granting a waiver as a “matter of principle” and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) stated she would not support a waiver either. Other Senators who have previously said they would vote against a waiver include Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). 
  • China – Multiple Senators asked Austin about his views and potential strategies for competition with China. Austin said that the entire Indo-Pacific would be the focus of his department, with a specific focus on modernizing the military to compete with Chinese technology advancements. He believed China’s goal is to become a hegemon in the region, and that the U.S. must work with partners to ensure the right processes and capacities are in place to protect U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region. Austin stressed that the U.S. needs to continue to invest in modernization. The Department needs more capabilities that present a credible threat to China in the future. Use of AI, quantum computing, connected battlefields, and space-based platforms can give the U.S. the capability to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk. Austin added that the U.S. has been able to curb China’s influence in Africa with smaller investments and remained committed to reducing that influence.
  • Iran – Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) both asked Austin about the threat posed by Iran. Austin indicated that Iran continues to be a destabilizing presence in the Middle East and is a threat to national security. If Iran achieved nuclear capability that threat is magnified. Austin said that any agreement between Iran and the U.S. would require Iran to meet any outlying conditions from the previous agreement. He would also want to address broader issues with Iran like their stores of ballistic missiles. Austin said that denuclearization agreements with any country should be done through agreements and not unilaterally. 
  • Russia – Sen. Blumenthal asked Austin to address how he would deal with the most recent Russian cyberattack on the United States. Austin said he would make sure that Russia is held accountable for their actions if they are found to be the perpetrators. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked Austin to commit to ensure that Arctic resources are protected from Russian military presence in the arctic. Austin gave his commitment.
  • Afghanistan – Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) criticized the Trump administration’s recent agreement with the Taliban, arguing that the Taliban has failed to comply, and failed to consider the role of women and minorities in Afghanistan. She asked Austin what he wants to see for real changes to be reflective of U.S. and partner’s efforts in the country. Austin said he and the Department would make every effort possible to ensure that the U.S. makes a meaningful ending to the conflict in Afghanistan. He said the conflict there needs to end with an agreement that makes Afghanistan not represent a threat to U.S. national security. 
  • Military Housing – Multiple senators spoke about poor conditions in military housing and the urgent need to address that. Austin said the issues facing military housing are critically important to him, and that he would work with services contracting efforts to ensure they were adequate for military families. 
  • Cyber Security – Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked Austin about cyber capability in the military. Austin said it is imperative for the U.S. to have offensive cyber capability to create a qualitative edge over countries like Russia and China. He would want to understand the process of developing that technology across all agencies. He mentioned that speed will matter in developing those capabilities. 

 

TAKEAWAY

While there is some opposition to granting a waiver for Austin to serve in both chambers and in both parties, it is expected that Congress will pass legislation waiving the requirement. Some Members who have come out against the waiver still intend to vote for his confirmation, like Senator Duckworth. Granting a waiver is a rare occurrence for the position of Secretary of Defense, with only two waivers having been granted previously to General George Marshall in 1950 and General Mattis in 2017. 

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

The House Armed Services Committee was scheduled to hear from Austin on Thursday in a public hearing on civilian control of the military, however, this has been now moved to a closed briefing for the Committee since the Committee has not been officially organized. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced that the House will vote on a waiver on Thursday. The Senate is expected to take action soon after.