- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2021

President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Defense spent more than 40 years in uniform but said he’s not coming to Washington to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin told senators on Tuesday that he understands the different responsibilities of the most senior military officer and the top civilian official in the Pentagon

“If confirmed, we’ll make sure those roles and responsibilities are clearly outlined,” he said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The coronavirus pandemic, sexual assault and harassment in the ranks and an increasingly bellicose China are among the most pressing concerns facing the Pentagon’s leadership. While each challenge will be taken seriously, COVID-19 is in a category of its own, he said.

“If confirmed, I will quickly review the [Department of Defense’s] contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness,” he said during his opening remarks.

Like former Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, President Trump’s first defense secretary, Gen. Austin will need a waiver from both houses of Congress to take the Defense Department job, with even some of Mr. Biden’s Democratic allies expressing concern about the blurring of the traditional civilian control of the armed forces.

Mr. Biden’s pick would also make history as the first Black American ever to serve as defense secretary.

Amid several questions from senators of both parties, Gen. Austin insisted he could separate his more than 40 years of military service with his new job and role as a political appointee. 

“I understand and respect the reservations that some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” he said. “The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil.”

Based on a 1947 law, the congressional waiver has only been granted twice, first to former Gen. George C. Marshall under President Truman and most recently to Mr. Mattis. 

Gen. Austin has been out of the Army for five years.

The nominee faces a full slate of challenges should his confirmation go through.

A former head of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, Gen. Austin said he would like to see America’s military operations in Afghanistan come to end with a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

“We’re going to make every effort that we can to ensure that happens. This conflict needs to come to an end,” he said. 

He described Iran as a destabilizing element in the Middle East that “doesn’t work well with its neighbors.” Keeping it from getting even stronger is a priority.

“If Iran were ever to get a nuclear capability, most every problem that we deal with in the region would be tougher,” he said.

Stamping out sexual assault in the armed forces is a priority because it adversely impacts on leadership and readiness, Gen. Austin said, as evidenced by a string of recent high-profile cases.

“I take the issue of sexual assault seriously and personally,” he said. “We have to get better and we will get better.”

But, when asked if sexual assault should be taken away from the military chain of command, Gen. Austin was wary, saying any change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be done only after careful deliberation.

“I would certainly want to take this on and look at it with the right experts,” he said. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, pressed him about the “cozy relationship” between the Pentagon and the defense industry, Gen. Austin said he would recuse himself from any decision affecting defense giant Raytheon, where he has been a board member since 2016 and would not seek any similar position afterwards.

The pledge “sends a powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people and no one else,” Ms. Warren told him.

Separately, Defense News reported Tuesday that a planned House Armed Services Committee hearing this week on the waiver questions had been scrubbed. Committee members will instead hold a closed-door meeting with the nominee.

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