What Should Be Addressed in Austin’s Confirmation Hearing for Defense Secretary?

Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday for his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary. If confirmed, he would become the first Black defense secretary in American history. Before the Senate is able to confirm his nomination, Congress must pass a waiver that would exempt him from a law requiring that a military officer be retired for at least seven years before serving as defense secretary. Austin retired from the Army in 2016. Jim Mattis, a recently retired four-star Marine general, required the same waiver when Donald Trump picked him to serve as his first defense secretary. Both of these nominations raised concerns that the norm of civilian control of the military is eroding.

For this reason, civil-military relations will surely be a key part of the questioning Austin will receive. However, stepping in to lead the Defense Department following four years of Trump as commander-in-chief means the challenges awaiting Austin are multifold. They range from the strategic (What is the mission and how should it be resourced in Afghanistan? What is the Biden administration’s approach to Iran?) to personnel and readiness issues (undoing the transgender military ban, sexual assault and harassment, and a resurgence of white supremacy and right-wing extremism in the ranks), not to mention the Pentagon issues that never seem to go away: a broken acquisition system and out-of-control costs. To prepare for the hearing, Just Security surveyed some of the top defense experts and thinkers to get their thoughts on what issues they’d like to see addressed and what questions they’d like to see asked. 

Several people focused on what Sue Fulton describes below as a “crisis of character in the armed forces,” noting the murder of Vanessa Guillén and what it revealed about the command climate at Fort Hood, the role played by veterans in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as well a long-withheld Defense Department survey that showed widespread racial discrimination and harassment. As Fulton writes, “The new SecDef will have to meaningfully re-center character as a requirement for military service: the need for all service members to work respectfully and effectively with their teammates regardless of race, gender, or religion.” While other challenges may attract more attention, this will likely be the most important part of Austin’s job, if he is confirmed.

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Jessica Blankshain, an assistant professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College

My primary concern with the nomination of another recently retired general as defense secretary is its possible contribution to the erosion of norms about civilian control of the military and the military’s role in politics and policymaking. Such concerns, of course, need to be balanced with other considerations, including the historic nature of Austin’s nomination as the potential first Black defense secretary. A key issue I would like to see clarified in the hearing is how Austin views the role of secretary of defense, and in particular how he believes it differs from senior military leadership positions. Does Austin still see himself as an apolitical actor removed from the politics of policymaking, or does he believe that accepting a Cabinet nomination places him squarely in the political realm? What actions does he plan to take to make the distinction between Secretary Austin and General Austin clear to himself, administration leadership, his subordinates, and the public? How does he believe that he, as defense secretary, can best insulate the military personnel and civil servants within the department from politicization? A second issue I would like to see addressed is Austin’s views on the role of civilian defense expertise in policymaking. Austin has, of course, reaffirmed his commitment to the principle of civilian control of the military. But beyond the general principle, it would be useful to understand more specifically his views on what both civilian and military experts bring to the table.

Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, and an Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran

While Austin’s confirmation hearings are likely to focus heavily on the military’s response to white nationalists in the ranks (and rightfully so), there are several other issues that merit pointed questioning. First, the military’s cultural crisis of sexual harassment and assault came to a head last year with the murder of Vanessa Guillen and the resulting report that found a dysfunctional command climate at Fort Hood. For years military leaders have promised to root out the problem but have consistently failed. At Austin’s hearing it will not be enough to accept the tired statements of “this is not who we are” or that “the military has zero tolerance” on issues of gender discrimination, but to pinpoint exactly how he proposes to bring real change to the military, including a reexamination of whether military leaders should retain legal authority over incidents of sexual assault that happen under their command. 

Secondly, while the issue of placing retired generals in senior government roles has been extensively covered in light of Austin’s nomination, less attention has been paid to the fact that retired generals and representatives of the defense industry are often one and the same. In regards to the execution of foreign policy, members of Congress would therefore do well to probe Austin not only as a retired general, but as someone who chose to attach his reputation to the Raytheon Corporation upon leaving active military service. Sustainment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were notoriously outsourced to defense contractors. The result was a system that often hid the true costs of the war as contract personnel, and contractor casualties, were often ignored. As someone who has worked for both the military and the defense industry, does Austin believe this is a healthy way for democracies to wage war? 

Members of Congress should also ask how his experiences have prepared him to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not go to waste. As a retired general officer, Austin comes from an organization that received a never-ending spigot of funding for the past 20 years, and whose leaders had no direct responsibility for reining in costs. Simultaneously, the defense industry has reaped massive profits. As a result, and has been extensively documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, our longest war has been marked by massive amounts of fraud, waste, and abuse. Does Austin believe that this approach is sustainable, or an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, and if not, how does he propose to introduce accountability to this system? 

Eugene Fidell, senior research scholar at Yale Law School and adjunct professor at NYU Law School 

  1. The Joint Service Committee on Military Justice issued a report last year in response to § 540F of the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act. The report stated that “ensuring the U.S. system complies with human rights obligations is undoubtedly not a U.S. concern.” Do you agree?
  2. What is your view on whether the power to decide who is prosecuted for what under the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be transferred from nonlawyer commanders to uniformed lawyers independent of the chain of command? 
  3. Should commanders continue to have the power to pick members of military juries?
  4. At present, the overwhelming majority of armed forces personnel who are convicted by courts-martial do not have a right to seek direct appellate review by the Supreme Court. If you are confirmed, will you support legislation to fix this injustice?
  5. If you are confirmed, what specific steps will you take to prevent unlawful command influence in courts-martial?

 

Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate, LGBT military activist, former chair of the West Point Board of Visitors 

The incoming secretary of defense faces some critical crises in the armed forces. In addition to pressing foreign threats, cyber and physical, he must address the crisis of character in the armed forces. Fort Hood highlighted intractable and ongoing issues of gender inequity and sexual assault that must be addressed. The involvement of military personnel in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack underscores the need to identify white-supremacist extremists in the ranks, and eliminate anyone who advocates violent overthrow of the government. And the DOD’s racism survey showed problems as widespread in the force as in society at large. The new SecDef will have to meaningfully re-center character as a requirement for military service: the need for all service members to work respectfully and effectively with their teammates regardless of race, gender, or religion. This is a readiness issue. Austin has the built-in advantage of existing credibility with the troops based on his service. In his hearing, he has a chance to tell us how he will leverage his extraordinary reputation in a strong and uncompromising effort to end racism and misogyny in the military, once and for all. 

Jim Golby, an Army veteran and civil-military relations expert at the University of Texas at Austin

During his testimony on the Hill, Austin will face challenging questions on a wide array of urgent policy issues. These will range from vaccine distribution to budgetary pressures, to white nationalism in the ranks to the challenges in the Indo-Pacific region posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and a rising China, to his own role in the Iraq drawdown and the rise of ISIS. While many — including me — have focused on steps Austin can take to restore civilian control in the Pentagon, perhaps the most important test Austin will face is whether he can demonstrate to lawmakers that he is ready to approach these challenges not as a former general, but rather as a civilian political appointee. Is Austin ready to balance competing interests and make value judgments about contested political issues on behalf of the administration? Has he thought deeply about how to build a strong civilian team that can restore necessary processes on war plan reviews, strategy development, budgeting and force development, and personnel policies? I’ll be watching the testimony to see how well Austin understands his new role as the only civilian in the military chain of command other than the president. These hearings are Austin’s final audition to demonstrate whether he really is prepared to serve as the public face of the Department of Defense, and whether he is ready to transparently explain and defend administration policies to Congress, to the press, and to the public.

Luke Hartig, a fellow in New America’s International Security program, previously served as senior director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Just Security Board of Editors 

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” Yet he has also called for maintaining a narrower focus on al-Qaeda and ISIS and relying on Special Operations Forces and intelligence assets to support local partners and keep the country safe from terrorist threats. Austin has spent as much time in the Middle East and South Asia, fighting the forever wars, as any officer of his generation. He has fought on the ground and managed the campaigns from Tampa, the home to U.S. Central Command. I will be listening for his plan for implementing Biden’s vision, drawing on this vast experience. What does a scaled down mission with a focus on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan look like? What are our forces doing in this scenario? What aren’t they doing? How long will they need to continue this fight?

Similarly, Biden has called for ending support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Despite some expressed concerns, the Trump administration largely stood by Saudi Arabia – and the United Arab Emirates – as their campaign against the Houthis inflicted massive harm on Yemen. Nearly a quarter million Yemenis have died, and 3.6 million more have been displaced, over the past six years. Seventy-five percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line and the country is on track to be the poorest country in the world in the next few years. In our counterterrorism campaign, the Emiratis (with the United States quite likely aware) have detained, tortured, and possibly even paid off al-Qaeda and ISIS members in Yemen. I am eager to hear Austin’s thoughts on when and how he will pull back U.S. support from the Saudi-led campaign and what options he thinks might be available to provide desperately needed humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Going back to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Gen. Austin’s predecessors have put substantial time and effort into reorienting the Department’s acquisition system to prioritize emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, autonomy, directed energy, microelectronics, and hypersonics. Given a likely tightening of resources for defense after extensive COVID-19 spending, what are Austin’s plans for investing in advanced technologies? What technologies are absolutely necessary for positioning the U.S. military for great power competition and for fighting in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment? What more does Austin think can be done to bring in unconventional contractors? Beyond the technical challenges, what are the ethical, legal, or strategic questions Austin thinks we still need to work through?

Larry Korb, a senior fellow at American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) from 1981 through 1985, and served on active duty for four years as Naval Flight Officer 

In his confirmation hearing Austin will be asked a number of questions. I recommend the inclusion of these:

Did he interview, and does he support, the individuals already nominated to serve as his deputy, chief of staff, under secretary for policy, and public affairs officer? Did he veto any people suggested for these positions by the transition team? Does it concern him that having a career military officer as secretary, and also having another one as public affairs officer, will send the wrong signal to the American people about civilian control of the military? 

Third, as a career military Army officer does he support diverting funds from the Army to increase the Navy from 290 to 355 ships over this decade? Does he support the 2018 National Security Strategy that sees China as the primary security threat which justifies the increase? 

Fourth, given the fact that he is not only a career military officer but a member of the board of directors of the Raytheon company, one of the largest defense contractors, who will be giving him a severance of over $1,000,000, is he concerned about President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the influence of the military industrial complex? 

Dave Lapan, vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a spokesman and adviser for several secretaries of defense 

If confirmed, Austin will inherit a bully pulpit at a critical time for the nation and the military. How will he use his unique position as SecDef to rebuild trust and credibility with the American public, and within the force, which has become more politicized and polarized, including by race and gender? How will he embrace the external communication role of leadership, something he was not known for during his active-duty time, and empower other DoD leaders — civilian and military — to do the same?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, Just Security Board of Editors

In the last days of the Trump administration, the Pentagon announced that it was reducing the level of support it was rendering to the CIA, and cutting back on Department of Defense staffing in this regard. Do you approve of this decision? What will be your approach to defense and intelligence-related cooperation, specifically in counter-terrorism operations?

U.S.-Russian relations have continued to deteriorate in recent years. In response to Russian aggression –such as the invasion of Ukraine, cyber attacks against the U.S. government, and interference in U.S. elections — U.S.-Russian military channels of communication have been sharply curtailed in recent years. Do you plan to re-establish lines of communications with the Russian military? At what level? How important are robust channels of communication in lowering the possibility of an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that could lead to conflict?

How do you plan to address the deterioration in strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia that occurred under the Trump administration, e.g., U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, extension of START treaty, and Ballistic Missile Defense? Should non-nuclear factors such as NATO, conventional forces, cyber means, and other levers of statecraft be considered in negotiations to strengthen strategic stability? How should China factor in U.S. military strategy in this regard?

With regard to cyber, specifically, is there merit in initiating negotiations with the Russians and Chinese, without preconditions, in order to explore the possibility of agreeing on mutual constraints in areas of common interest, and lowering the possibility of confrontation in areas of disagreement, i.e., development of a cyber “rules of the road?”

As concerns Iran, should the United States re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), as has been signaled by the incoming administration? Should Iran have to meet certain pre-conditions in coming back into compliance with the terms of the agreement? If the JCPOA is restored, what leverage would the United States have in confronting Iranian threats against U.S. allies, notably in the Middle East and Yemen?

What role do you foresee for the military in mitigating threats to national security due to climate change? 

Mark Nevitt, an Associate Professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law, a retired Navy JAG officer and before that a naval tactical jet aviator

As the hearing takes place, here are three questions that should be on lawmakers’ minds.

1. What does civilian control of the military mean to you and do you believe that your departure from active-duty military service will in any way complicate your ability to serve as secretary of defense?

It is critically important that the senators hear from Austin first hand on his thoughts and personal views on civilian control of the military. This is particularly important as senators are fulfilling their constitutional duty to provide advice and consent to his nomination and both houses of Congress will vote on whether to waive a provision in law that prohibits recently retired officers from serving as secretary of defense. As I have previously argued, there is nothing necessarily magical about this seven-year period, and Austin has likely thought deeply about the military’s role in society and what civilian control of the military means to him. Disappointingly, some senators have already stated that they will oppose waiving this provision, but a clear thoughtful answer could do wonders to assuage many members still on the fence on whether to grant a waiver.

2. President-elect Biden has explicitly named climate change as one of the four crises facing the nation. Do you believe that climate change is a national security issue, and what role does the Department of Defense have in addressing the climate crisis?

We don’t yet know much about Austin’s views on climate change and his vision for the Pentagon’s role in combating the climate crisis. Scientists and intelligence officials are increasingly sounding the alarm on climate change’s role in extreme weather, harming key national security infrastructure and destabilizing regions of the world. Biden has been very forward-leaning in his appointments, naming John Kerry as the special envoy for climate with a seat on the National Security Council. The Pentagon is also an enormous emitter of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is having a dramatic impact in the Arctic, opening up an entirely new operational domain and leading to Russian militarization. What are Austin’s views on the growing relationship between climate change and national security, and how will he work with his governmental and international partners to advance Biden’s agenda?

3. What do you see as the Pentagon’s security priorities in the Indo-Pacific region and what can the U.S. do, both unilaterally and in coordination with allies and partners, to counter the increasing challenge posed by China in the South China Seas?

Several skeptics of Austin’s nomination have lamented that his extensive service in the Army was focused on the Middle East and he served as the Central Commander (not Indo-Pacific Commander). While the U.S. military has routinely conducted freedom of navigation operations to protest China’s excessive maritime claims in the region, China has continued to aggressively build in the South China Sea and ignore international rulings that have largely discredited Chinese claims

I would also be interested in learning of Austin’s views on the newest branch of the armed forces—the Space Force—and steps he might take to combat stubborn pockets of extremism within the military’s ranks. 

Alka Pradhan, Human Rights Counsel at the Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions and teaches International Human Rights and National Security at Penn Law School

The detainees at Guantanamo Bay have spent between 14 to 19 years in U.S. custody, and most suffered brutal torture as documented in the redacted summary of the Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, or accounts by former government personnel. Among those who suffer from the long-term effects of their state-sanctioned torture are the defendants in the widely criticized military commissions proceedings. Yet appropriate medical care has been withheld from Guantanamo detainees, such that their physical and psychological conditions have deteriorated significantly. Just last week, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy actually changed a long-standing regulation after the D.C. District Court found that it required independent medical examinations of Guantanamo detainees, specifically to avoid providing such medical evaluations.

The conditions of confinement at Guantanamo are similarly deteriorating to levels of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In February 2019, Rear Admiral John C. Ring, the Commander of the Joint Task Force, was fired after he “called attention to the need for additional funding to, among other things, repair and/or replace” detainee facilities at Guantanamo. Rear Adm. Ring described Camp 7 in particular as “falling apart and hemorrhaging money” with cracked foundation and sinking jail cells that create constant standing sewage problems.

During his confirmation hearing, Austin must address the many failures at Guantanamo Bay, its colossal cost, and whether a Department of Defense under his stewardship will 1.) Re-educate the public about the detainee population at Guantanamo and the failure of the military commissions; 2.) Facilitate the repatriation (or transfer) of all detainees to countries willing to provide long-term medical care, and 3.) Close the detention facility permanently. 

Anthony Robinson, a former Obama administration national security appointee, Marine Corps veteran 

For me, there is no denying that with all of the factors that will be front and center as Austin sits before the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the more monumental aspects will be that the first African-American selected to lead the Department of Defense will be seated at that prestigious table. It is historic and inspirational all rolled into one. Just the nature of a pending confirmation sends a strong message about shaping the conversation and shifting the role that African-Americans play in this country. Especially in national security and foreign policy.

When there is a strain on the collective fabric of our democracy, what a time to have a leader who has a unique kind of experience you can’t find solely in war colleges, on the battlefield, or in academia. It is the experience of understanding marginalized communities, class inequities, and racism.

What I Expect to See:

Civilian control of the military: I expect fair and honest consideration for a candidate chosen by the president-elect that will need both chambers of Congress to approve a waiver. There is no shortage of thoughts on the decision to nominate Austin and if it is the right decision to have a military official in a civilian role, but valid discussion should not and will not distract from looking at the true qualifications of a professional with a unique background such as Austin. Taking nothing away from serious considerations about the precedence of generals in civilian roles or the importance of maintaining civilian-military relations, there needs to be consideration of the moment we are in now.

Plan to Deal with China: Austin should be prepared to detail the topline strategy for DoD great power competition with China after a hardline focus previously on counterinsurgency in the Middle East. While this is an area that lawmakers and think-tankers have decried as a point of weakness for Austin, this is a point where Austin can detail his willingness to surround himself with a diverse civilian team that will position him, as SecDef, and the Department overall, for effectiveness.

Centcom Command Tenure: I expect to some degree that there will be questions that Austin will have to answer related to his time as Centcom Commander when there were less than favorable outcomes that came from the program designed to train Syrian opposition fighters to take on ISIS.

Barry Robinson, a practicing attorney, recently retired as chief counsel for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce; previously served as a captain in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps and as a member of the Defense Department Task Force to Investigate Discrimination in the Administration of Military Justice in 1974

I am interested to have Austin speak to the problem of barriers to the advancement of officers of color to three- and four-star ranks. The dearth of Black officers in the favored combat units (e.g. fighter pilot command positions in USAF, or Army or Marine Corps combat battalion slots, or ship drivers, aviators, or submariners in the Navy — known to be a gateway to upper level command positions) has been a long standing impediment to promotion at the highest levels. 

Also, I would like to hear his thoughts about efforts needed to investigate the presence of white nationalist influence among the ranks of military personnel that can pose threats to unity and cohesiveness.

Mike Schmitt, professor of international law at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom; Francis Lieber Distinguished Scholar at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar and Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Texas; Just Security Board of Editors 

The one legal question I have is whether, in his view, Russia is in belligerent occupation of Ukrainian territory such that there is still an ongoing armed conflict between those nations, and if so, what should U.S. armed forces be doing to assist the Ukrainian armed forces.

In the non-legal arena, I would like to know how he intends to mend relations with our NATO allies. Was the tension that surfaced over the last four years primarily at the political level or are their mil-to-mil relationships that need to be rebuilt? 

In the cyber arena, is the “Defending Forward” cyber strategy that is to be executed in great part through “persistent engagement”, as set forth in the 2018 DoD Cyber Strategy, the right approach to ensuring U.S. cyber security or, as some claim, overly aggressive? Is it a strategy that we can expect our allies and partners, particularly NATO members, to support politically and operationally?

Then structural questions:

What is his view on suggestions to end the “Dual-Hat” arrangement for the National Security Agency and Cyber Command?

Was creating the Space Force the right move? Should there be a “Cyber Force?”

Rachel E. VanLandingham, a national security law expert and former judge advocate in the U.S. Air Force, a Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School, and a 1992 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy

Some of the most pressing internal issues facing the next secretary of defense deal with the mental and physical health of the women and men in uniform, as well as the climate within military units that either protect those serving or help destroy them. From the continuing scourge of sexual assault within the ranks; the presence of extremists in uniform; the underreported yet stark recent increase of military suicides; and the racial disparities that continue to plague armed forces, the next secretary of defense faces numerous personnel challenges. 

What will Secretary Austin do to right the military ship on these fronts? How will he ensure an inclusive military that values all its people equally in deed and not just word? How will he ensure mental health provision is better resourced and promoted? How will he ensure the military justice system is equally utilized, instead of disproportionately rendering “justice” against Black service-members more than White? How will he ensure that appropriate action is taken regarding allegations of sexual assault, when a shockingly high number of women don’t trust their leadership enough to even report they’ve been assaulted or harassed by fellow service members? How will he hold commanders accountable for their failures on the leadership front, given that commanders’ leadership is key to helping improve all these pressing issues and yet they are rarely held to account for their abuses of leadership, particularly within the military justice system?

The core strength of the U.S. military isn’t its multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers and fancy fighter aircraft. The U.S. military’s number one resource is its people, performing at the top of their game in an inclusive environment that values each individual and their contribution to the team – within an organization that provides just, equal, fair, and speedy accountability for those who refuse to meet fair standards. How will Secretary Austin ensure the just military that our men and women in uniform were promised and deserve?

All views expressed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their employers.

Image: U.S. Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre on December 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).