The Case for Lloyd Austin as Joe Biden's Secretary of Defense

The Case for Lloyd Austin as Joe Biden's Secretary of Defense

Joe Biden chose a warrior with a lot of skills and who commands much respect. Is Austin the man for the job? 

General Lloyd Austin drew up plans to destroy ISIS, faced enemy fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a soldier and an infantry commander. He also led elements of Army modernization during his tenure as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and directed the entire Joint War effort in the Middle East as Commander, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). General Austin knows warfare, perhaps one reason why a number of current senior officials and other members of the U.S. military are enthusiastic he his Biden’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

Destroying ISIS was a major task for the Pentagon, as it required the execution of air and ground attacks along with decided efforts to train, equip and prepare anti-ISIS Iraqis.

“He designed and executed the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS, helping to build a coalition of partners and allies from more than 70 countries who worked together,” President Elect Joe Biden writes in an essay on Austin in The Atlantic. 

While an Army soldier familiar with fire base artillery attacks, airborne assault raids and close-quarter combat, Austin must have also likely had close-up knowledge with targeted air attacks, as Coalition bombing missions and air strikes on ISIS played a “more than decisive” role in ultimately destroying ISIS.

F-15s, surveillance drones and even F-22 Raptors participated in pinpointed air-attacks on ISIS. It was, quite significantly, the combat debut of an operational F-22, an interesting and significant development given that it demonstrated the mission versatility of the air-supremacy oriented stealth fighter. During attacks on ISIS, F-22s likely pursued high-speed ground attacks as well as networking with or “quarterbacking” fourth-generation-aircraft attacks as an aerial sensor platform. Many F-22 proponents speak of this kind of F-22 functional possibilities, despite its reputation as arguably the world’s most elite air-to-air platform.

Therefore, as a member of the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Infantry Division, Austin understands ground combat and, interestingly, it appears he must also be familiar with F-22 targeting and air attack missions. This seems quite significant for an incoming Department of Defense Secretary, given the current importance of multi-domain warfare preparations for major-power conflict and networking efforts now gaining momentum such as the current Joint All Domain Command and Control effort.

Meanwhile, while at CENTCOM, Austin was likely faced with coordinating an interwoven mix of allied attacks and participation across the Coalition, a leadership role obviously requiring a delicate mixture of diplomat, statesman, commander and soldier sensibilities, a blend of characteristics championed by Biden in his essay.

When it came to coming home from Iraq, “General Austin got the job done,” according to Biden, who adds that Austin coordinated the drawdown and departure of more than 150,000 soldiers. Austin left Iraq in 2011. 

However, Austin also knew war, as when he was at war in during Operation Iraqi Freedom, his Division seized what was called Saddam International airport in combat, according to a 2013 book called “The Endgame: The inside story of the struggle for Iraq, from George Bush to Barack Obama.”

As SecDef, Austin must also understand technological military modernization, something likely to call upon his time as one of the modernization leaders during the Pentagon’s massive technology push through what was called the “Third Offset.” As Vice Chief between 2011 and 2013, Austin was likely immersed in the advent of artificial intelligence, future armored combat, cyber defense innovations and the new generation of cross-domain networking technologies such as satellites and early cloud migration. The Army Vice Chief of Staff typically plays a large role when it comes to Army modernization strategy, and his tenure took place during the enormous pivot to the Pacific, a move which paralleled greater emergence of Chinese expansionism and modernization, therefore contributing in large measure to the Pentagon’s broader transition from a decade of counterinsurgency into what is now a prevailing and pressing focus upon great power competition. Austin likely spent years hearing about Russia and China during his years as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

While few, if any, have a crystal ball or can predict the future of today’s highly polarized political environment, several sources at the Pentagon say the emerging preliminary consensus is that he may not face huge resistance on the Hill. At least that is the hope among many. However, some worry he may face some pushback when it comes to getting a “waiver” to serve as Secretary of Defense given that he has only been out of the military for three years. Former Secretary of Defense and General Jim Mattis got a waiver. Wouldn’t a uniformed leader closer to current combat service and strategic operations arguably be well positioned to manage the current threat environment? Wouldn’t being more familiar with recent wars be pretty important now, given the current pace of technological change related to U.S. Chinese and Russian military modernization? 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.