President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for his secretary of defense, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, has created quite a bit of controversy. By all accounts, the general has served with distinction and heroism. His Silver Star is the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat.
That Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense should have no place in his suitability for that assignment or in the confirmation and waiver processes needed, given he has not been retired for seven or more years as required by the law. The key criterion for Congress is this: What the Department of Defense needs most in a leader must define the qualifications for the next secretary and not other less-relevant matters. So far, that criterion has not been addressed.
To be blunt, the next secretary will be confronted with three crises over strategy, budgets and organization. Strategy is based on a great power competition with China and Russia, China being the “pacing threat” whose military capabilities must be matched or exceeded by our own. The strategy calls for the Pentagon to “compete, deter, or, if war comes, defeat” China or Russia or North Korea or Iran and deal with violent extremism.
But nowhere have the criteria of “compete, deter and defeat” been specifically defined, nor have operational concepts about how each is to be achieved been developed. And, more concerning, is that no obvious off-ramp exists to prevent a crisis or conflict from arising in this competition. Perhaps the great power rivalries of the last century that led to World War I have been forgotten.
This year’s defense budget will be around $750 billion. Given the massive debt that has accumulated because of COVID-19, both for vital emergency relief spending and economic loss due to the pandemic, maintaining even level spending for the Pentagon will be fiscally difficult. The sordid little secret is that merely to keep the current force, let alone a larger one, at present levels of readiness, modernization and capability requires about 5% to 7% annual real increases to account for inbuilt and uncontrolled cost growth. At 7%, principal doubles every 10 years, meaning in 2031, a $1.5 trillion budget would be needed.
Absent a crisis, that is not going to happen.
The organization of the Pentagon and the chain of command is still based on a mid-20th century structure and the National Security Act first passed in 1949. The organizations both in Washington and in the field are bloated to excess. And the department is still largely organized on an analog and not digital foundation, also of the last century.
The next secretary will have to move the department from a 20th century industrial-based legacy force to a 21st century information and advanced technology military. Given that the nation’s largest defense contractors excel at producing relatively few numbers of very expensive weapons systems and platforms, this will be no easy task. And while the services are reducing traditional reliance on platforms in designing future forces, this is very much a work in progress.
The outgoing Trump administration has directed shifting resources away from the land and air forces to building a larger navy to counter China’s. However, what that larger navy is meant to achieve or the strategy to guide it likewise is vague. And the other services will not easily acquiesce to budget cuts.
In the hearings over granting a waiver and then confirming the general as secretary, the issue of civilian control of the military will be central. That, unfortunately, is the wrong issue. The president, a civilian, is commander in chief. And Congress, also all civilians, has the sole authority to fund, confirm promotions and set the rules and regulations for the military.
The real issue hidden in civilian control is whether anyone after serving in a military institution for 40 years with its unique culture, discipline, leadership and professional standards can adjust to an entirely different set of largely political and far more multi-dimensional considerations than general officers confront. Doubtless, some but not all retired flag and general officers can.
The two defining issues that should determine Austin’s fitness to serve as secretary of defense are: First, is he in this category of officers who can make this transition? And, second, does he have the “right stuff” to deal with the crises in strategy, budgets and organization?
Let us hope those questions and not less important ones are answered in this process.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation.”