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Austin pledges to empower Pentagon civilians

Austin pledges to empower Pentagon civilians
© Greg Nash

Retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Austin says he's 'concerned' about Iranian ships in Atlantic Pentagon chief: Military has already started 'over-the-horizon' operations in Afghanistan MORE, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE’s pick for Defense secretary, pledged Tuesday to take several steps to ensure civilian Defense Department officials are empowered if he is confirmed amid concerns about another recently retired general leading the Pentagon.

“Let me say at the outset that I understand and respect the reservations some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” Austin said in his opening statement during his Senate confirmation hearing.

“The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our Armed Forces, the subordination of military power to the civil,” he continued. “I spent my entire life committed to that principle. In war and in peace, I implemented the policies of civilians elected and appointed over me.”

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“I know that being a member of the president’s Cabinet, a political appointee, requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” he added. “I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaningful oversight.”

Specifically, Austin pledged to include the under secretary of Defense for policy in key decisionmaking meetings to ensure “strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy.” Biden has named longtime aide Colin Kahl as his nominee for under secretary for policy.

Austin also said he will “rebalance” coordination between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff to “ensure civilian input is integrated at every level of the process,” and he pledged the Pentagon would work “hand in glove” with the State Department.

He also said he understands a “large measure” of civilian control of the military lies with legislative oversight responsibilities and vowed to respect Congress and be “forthcoming and transparent” with lawmakers.

Pressed by Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Biden taps tech CEO, former destroyer commander to lead Navy Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (R.I.), the committee's top Democrat, Austin also said he would "do everything [he] can" to ensure "experienced and competent" nominees are named quickly to fill Pentagon vacancies.

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The issue of civilian control of the military is in the spotlight with Austin’s nomination because he needs Congress to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from being Defense secretaries.

Under the 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the armed forces, Defense secretaries must be retired from the military for at least seven years before they can take the job. Austin retired in mid-2016.

But Congress can approve a waiver to the law to allow someone within the cooling-off period to lead the Pentagon and has done so twice: first for George Marshall in 1950 and then for James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE in 2017.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern about approving another waiver so soon after Mattis, but Austin sought to blunt those concerns at the top of his hearing Tuesday.

“I was a general and a soldier, and I'm proud of that,” Austin said. “But today I appear before you as a citizen, a son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Ga., and I'm proud of that, too. And if you confirm me, I am prepared to serve now as a civilian, fully acknowledging the importance of this distinction.”