Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Defense secretary, told senators Tuesday that the most immediate challenges facing the military are the coronavirus pandemic, extremism and maintaining civilian control of the department.
Austin’s nomination has raised objections from lawmakers who said confirming the former four-star Army general who retired in 2016 would effectively give military officers more control over the Pentagon at a time when the civilian side of the department has been muted, and faith in the government is at a low point.
In his opening statement Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin sought to allay those fears.
“I understand and respect your reservations about having another retired general atop the Pentagon,” Austin said, “and the safety of our democracy requires subordination of military power to the civil.”
Current law prescribes a seven-year "cooling off period" for retired generals taking over the helm of the Pentagon. Both the House and the Senate must agree to waive that law, which the House plans to consider on Thursday.
Four years ago, Congress agreed to waive that requirement for President Donald Trump's first Defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis. That waiver was the first approved since George Marshall in 1947.
Austin acknowledged that being a Cabinet member would require a different perspective than his long career in uniform.
“If confirmed, I will surround myself with experienced and capable civilian leaders … and ensure strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy,” he said, later adding that his chief of staff would not be retired military.
Austin also said that he would immediately review the Pentagon’s role in the effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and work to stamp out racism and extremism within the military. If confirmed, Austin would make history as the first Black Defense secretary.
Austin’s comments on extremism come just hours after The Associated Press reported that at least two National Guard troops deployed to secure the Capitol ahead of Biden’s inauguration have been removed for possible links to right-wing extremist groups.
The ongoing epidemic of sexual assault and harassment within the military's ranks came up frequently at the meeting. Following a line of questioning from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Austin said that he took the issue of sexual assault seriously, and personally.
"We have to go after the culture. We have to go after the climate. This is a leadership issue. And, it starts from the top and we've got to work from the bottom as well, simultaneously,” Austin said.
But Austin was less firm when asked by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, if he would support changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include sexual harassment as a standalone charge.
Austin said he would work with experts before making such a change.
Austin also said he supported Biden’s plan to overturn the Pentagon’s current ban on transgender people serving in the military.
“If you’re fit and qualified to serve, you should be allowed to serve,” said Austin, whose last post in the military was as commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several senators brought up the recent SolarWinds hack, a massive Russian state-sponsored cyber attack on U.S. government agencies that compromised critical national security agencies, including the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Austin told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that he would commit to a "top-down review of cyber operations” within the Pentagon.
Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, experts warned that Austin had little experience with China and the Indo-Pacific region.
Austin called China “our most significant challenge,” and our “most concerning challenger.”
“I’ll continue to focus the resources of the Defense Department on this issue so we continue to present a credible deterrent to China, or any other aggressor,” Austin said. “Competing with China requires a whole-of-government approach.”
Austin said China was “already a regional hegemon,” and is eyeing a role as a dominant world power.
Under questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Austin, who serves on the board of Raytheon Co., one of the country's largest defense contractors, pledged to extend his recusal from decisions pertaining to the company for four years, if confirmed. He would also resign his board seat.
According to an ethics agreement filed by Austin ahead of his confirmation hearing, the nominee could get as much as $1.7 million in payments from the defense contractor should he give up his seat on the board to become the Defense secretary.