Fri, 26 Feb 2021

WASHINGTON - U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's pick to lead the Pentagon warns the country is facing a series of enemies, both at home and abroad, and that it will fall, in part, to the United States military to overcome the dangers.

Retired General Lloyd Austin appeared before lawmakers Tuesday and said his first priority if confirmed as the country's next secretary of defense would be to make sure all military resources are brought to bear against the coronavirus pandemic.

"The greatest challenge to our country right now ... is the pandemic," Austin told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wearing a suit and tie instead of the Army dress uniform he wore when he testified in Congress as the commander of U.S. military forces across the Middle East and South Asia.

"It's killed over 400,000 of our American citizens. That's just an incredible, incredible loss of life," he said. "We have to do everything we can to break the cycle of transmission and begin to turn this thing around."

Austin did not offer specifics about how he would ramp up the Pentagon's current efforts to distribute the coronavirus vaccines as part of what has been known as Operation Warp Speed. But he said he does believe there is more the Pentagon can do to counter what he described as the "most immediate" national security challenge.

Countering extremism at home

Austin spoke shortly after U.S. defense officials announced 12 National Guard troops initially assigned to help provide security for Biden's inauguration Wednesday were removed due to extremist ties. Austin pledged to take on what he called the enemy within.

"The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can't do that if some of those enemies lie with our own ranks," he said.

"This [extremism] has no place in the military of the United States of America," Austin added, describing it as part of a broader battle.

"I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve," he told U.S. lawmakers.

The 67-year-old Austin is a familiar face to many of the lawmakers who will vote on whether to confirm him, though his nomination is not without controversy.

U.S. law requires former active-duty military officers to be retired for seven years before they can serve as defense secretary - a law meant to ensure civilian control of the military. But Austin retired just five years ago, stepping down as the leader of U.S. Central Command in 2016.

Waivers have been granted just twice, most recently in 2017 for retired General Jim Mattis, who served as outgoing President Donald Trump's first defense secretary.

On Tuesday, some lawmakers, including Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, told Austin they would not support a waiver. Cotton went as far as to call his support of a waiver for Mattis a mistake.

Austin said he understood the concerns about "having another recently retired general" take the reins at the Pentagon and promised, that if confirmed, the voices of civilian defense officials would be heard.

"The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces," he said. "I have spent my entire life committed to that."

Like many of President-elect Biden's Cabinet selections, Austin focused on a change in course after four years under Trump and his "America First" policy.

Reaffirming alliances

Austin, in particular, noted the importance of the country's military alliances, saying that one of his first trips would be to visit Japan, South Korea and Australia, key allies in the Indo-Pacific, where competition with China is heating up.

"China is the most concerning competitor that we're facing," he said.

"Their goal is to be a dominant world power," Austin added. "We have to make sure that we begin to check their aggression."

The retired general promised lawmakers a "laser-like focus" on making sure the U.S. maintains a competitive edge over the growing Chinese military, though he said to do so will require investment in new technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing - areas in which China has been closing the gap.

Austin said Russia, long viewed as Washington's other key adversary in what Trump officials have described as an era of great power competition, remains a concern but not in the same way as Beijing.

"Russia is also a threat but it's in decline," he said, warning Moscow can still do "a great deal of damage" in cyberspace, like with the SolarWinds hack, and with influence operations.

In addition to Russia and China, lawmakers questioned Austin about the incoming Biden administration's position on Iran and talk the U.S. might seek to rejoin the so-called Iran nuclear deal.

Iran - a "destabilizing element"

Austin indicated any reentry to the nuclear deal would require movement by Tehran.

"The preconditions for us considering to reenter into that agreement would be that Iran meet the conditions outlined in the agreement ... back to where they should have been," Austin said.

And while the former CENTCOM commander said while the Trump administration's successful efforts to help normalize ties between Israel and Arab countries in the region may be helping put additional pressure on the regime, the danger remains.

"Iran continues to be a destabilizing element," Austin told lawmakers. "[Iran] does present a threat to our partners in the region and those forces that we have stationed in the region."

As for Afghanistan, where a Trump administration drawdown has left just 2,500 U.S. troops, Austin expressed a cautious hope.

"This conflict needs to come to an end. We need to see an agreement reached," he said.

If confirmed by the Senate, the former four-star general would be the first African American to serve as defense secretary.

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