The Senate has confirmed President Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired general Lloyd Austin, giving Biden his second Cabinet member two days after his inauguration.
Austin was confirmed in a 93-2 vote on Friday, with Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) voting nay. His ascent to the post of Pentagon head makes him the first black secretary of defense in U.S. history.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” Austin wrote in a tweet following his confirmation. “Let’s get to work.”
Ahead of the Senate confirmation vote, Austin had to clear the hurdle of getting a Congressional waiver that would let him bypass a law barring retired active-duty officers from serving in the top Pentagon job within seven years, a rule meant to safeguard civilian control of the U.S. armed forces. Lawmakers fast-tracked the waiver Thursday, with the House approving it in a vote of 326 to 78, later followed by 69 senators voting to grant it while 27 objected.
At his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, Austin sought to assure lawmakers that he would take steps to ensure civilian control of the military remained intact.
“I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations, grounded in meaningful oversight,” he said.
Austin, a retired Army four-star general, told lawmakers at the hearing that one of his top priorities will be to counter the threat posed by China.
“Clearly, the strategy will be arrayed against the threat and China presents the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending. Russia is also a threat, but it’s in decline,” he said.
Austin singled out several areas of focus for the U.S. military to be able to “present a credible deterrent” to China’s communist regime going forward.
“We’ll have to make some strides in the use of quantum computing, the use of AI, the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms,” he said. “Those kinds of things I think can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need to be able to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk,” he added.
Other threats requiring close attention is that posed by a nuclear Iran.
“If Iran were to get a nuclear capability, most every problem we deal with in the region would be tougher because of that. Iran’s behavior continues to be destabilizing,” he said at the hearing.
Austin praised the Trump administration’s efforts to advance peace in the Middle East, calling the Abraham Accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries a “good thing.”
“I think certainly this has put a bit more pressure on Iran and I hope it will have good effects,” he said.
Iran tensions remain high, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying last week that the al-Qaeda terrorist group has a new headquarters there.
“Al-Qaeda has a new home base, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said in a speech at the National Press Club. “As a result, bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities.”
“We ignore this Iran, al-Qaeda Nexus at our own peril. We need to acknowledge it, we must confront it. Indeed, we must defeat it,” he said, adding that “this axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself.”
In one of the Trump administration’s final moves, Israel was shifted to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, delivering a major boost to allied efforts to counter the regional threat posed by Iran.
In terms of Austin’s other priorities, he said at his hearing he would work to combat sexual assault, racism, and extremism in the military.
“If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” he said.
The military has also played a key role in fighting COVID-19, and Biden has said one of the reasons he nominated Austin was for him to provide logistics expertise to the vaccination effort.
The Department of Defense said that on Friday, Austin will head to the Pentagon, where he will take part in meetings and receive operational briefings about China and the Middle East.