On Monday, President-elect Joe Biden announced his choice of retired Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as the next Secretary of Defense. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black American to hold the position. This announcement comes as the Biden team continue to prepare for the Oval Office, and as the Trump administration continues its legal challenges of Biden’s projected victory.
Austin will need to secure a waiver from Congress in order to serve as Defense Secretary, as he retired from active duty only four years ago. The law requires that a service member be off of active duty for at least seven years before assuming such a position within the Pentagon. Retired Marine General James Mattis was also able to secure such a waiver upon his appointment by President Trump.
Being confirmed by the Senate to serve as the Secretary of Defense would mark yet another history-making achievement for retired General Lloyd Austin. Austin was also the first Black Commander of CENTCOM, as well as the first Black Vice Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army.
Biden has worked with the respected general before, most notably while Austin commanded CENTCOM during the Obama administration, in which the general supervised the drawdown in Iraq. Austin has extensive experience within the U.S. Army, having led every Army formation from platoon-sized elements to a full combatant command, according to a CENTCOM press release. As a brigadier general deployed to Iraq in 2003, Austin was heralded as a Soldier’s Soldier, famously carrying an M4 service rifle instead of the traditional general’s service weapon, a pistol.
“Austin carried an M4 carbine and a full ammo load. He is a big man, and the carbine looked like a peashooter in his hands. But the troops loved that he carried it, and he obviously knew how to use it.”CENTCOM Press Release
Early life and military experience
Born in Mobile, Alabama, on August 8, 1953, Austin grew up as an exceptional student and athlete. Upon graduating high school, the future general was offered an academic scholarship to attend Notre Dame University but opted for West Point Military Academy instead, at his father’s behest. During his tenure at West Point, Austin played rugby and was a member of the track team.
He graduated from West Point in 1975 and began his military career as a platoon leader for the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany. As his career progressed, Austin returned to school, earning a master’s degree in counselor education at Auburn University and earning another in business management at Webster University.
In 2003, Lloyd Austin deployed to Iraq as the commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum in New York. Before departing that command, he would also deploy to Afghanistan. From there, he moved on to serve as the Chief of Staff for CENTCOM in 2005.
In 2008 and 2009, Austin served as the Commander of Multi-National Corps in Iraq, before becoming Commanding General of all U.S. forces within the nation in 2010. It was in this role that Austin oversaw the significant drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, redeploying nearly 50,000 military personnel back to the United States. It was while serving in this role that President-elect Joe Biden worked with Austin, and he may have been chosen for the role of Defense Secretary specifically because of this feat. With the United States looking for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, Austin’s previous experience in such a quagmire may be of use.
Lloyd Austin briefly served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, the first Black man to hold the position, before once again making history as the first Black man to command CENTCOM. He continued in that role until his retirement in 2003. His awards upon his separation from active duty include a Silver Star Medal for valor in combat, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Three Oak Leaf Clusters), and the Legion of Merit.
Potential road blocks to confirmation
While retired General Lloyd Austin is a well-respected commander with a great deal of knowledge about the Pentagon’s inner workings, his confirmation as Secretary of Defense is anything but assured.
Many Democrats have voiced support instead for Michele Flournoy, a well-respected and highly qualified government official that previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy under President Bill Clinton and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under President Barack Obama.
Austin will also face concerns among lawmakers about military officers holding the top position within the Pentagon. Traditionally, the role of Defense Secretary is supposed to be a civilian position, ensuring America’s military apparatus is led not by a warfighter, but a policymaker. That requirement is laid out in the National Security Act of 1947 that established the Defense Department in the first place.
“There shall be a Secretary of Defense, who shall be appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate: PROVIDED, That a person who has within ten years been on active duty as a commissioned officer in a Regular component of the armed services shall not be eligible for appointment as Secretary of Defense.”– Excerpt from the National Security Act of 1947, creating a new Department of Defense.
Austin will need to secure a waiver from Congress in order to fill the role of Defense Secretary, which isn’t without precedent. Nearly four years ago now, President Trump’s pick for the job, famed Marine General James Mattis, received bipartisan support in pursuit of his own such waiver. However, at the time, some lawmakers voiced concern about establishing a precedent in this regard and warned that recently retired military leaders serving as SECDEF should not become the norm.
Further concerning for some is Austin’s previous role as a board director for the major defense contractor Raytheon. Lawmakers have often voiced concerns about Pentagon leaders having ties to the large corporations that supply the U.S. military with its tech and hardware. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who was never formally confirmed for the role, found himself under investigation during his tenure in the Pentagon’s top spot over ties to his former employer, Boeing.