Then-U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, commander of International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command, greets then-Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2013.

Then-U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, commander of International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command, greets then-Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2013. U.S. Army / SSG Richard Andrade

Confirm Austin, But Retire Milley

We’ve seen the harm that comes when the Pentagon’s civilian and military chiefs are too closely aligned.

The nomination of retired general Lloyd Austin to be the defense secretary in next year’s Biden administration has created some pushback. While most of this is limited to the “civ-mil” guild, which could be accused of being religious about this issue, there is some wider concern, often linked to James Mattis, the last retired four-star to hold the job.

I contend that the issues of having a four-star secretary are less serious than the civ-mil class maintains. Were only retired generals to be considered, that would be of concern. But there have been three defense secretaries (albeit two of them in an “acting” capacity) since the last retired general. There is no precedent that one must be a general to become the secretary.

However, there is one serious lesson to be drawn from Mattis’ tenure. The relationship between the retired Marine infantry officer-turned-SecDef and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford—a serving Marine infantry officer and former Mattis subordinate—was so close that it made the Pentagon dysfunctional in many ways. The operation of the Pentagon relies on healthy tension between the Office of the Secretary of Defense (the civilian side of the Pentagon) and the Joint Staff (representing the combatant commanders and—to a lesser extent—the services). The trust bond and personal history between Mattis and Dunford drove Mattis to use the Joint Staff as his primary staffing body, to the detriment of OSD and, by extension, the Pentagon as a whole. This is not to say that either Mattis or Dunford were or are bad men (just the opposite is true). However, they were remarkably ill-suited to serve together as secretary and chairman.

Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley are not—to my knowledge—as personally close as were Mattis and Dunford. But nonetheless they are or were four-star generals who came up through Army infantry. The potential for “groupthink” between these two men is very high.

This is not in any way an indictment of Milley. (Full disclosure: I know Milley, though I never worked for him or closely with him. I have had only one extended encounter with him, in Baghdad in 2004, which left me deeply impressed.) Milley has served long and honorably. His major error, in Lafayette Park, was largely forced, and he is now “once bitten; twice shy” on civilian-military issues. Milley is a great man—but the wrong man to be chairman to a Defense Secretary Austin. Upon Austin’s confirmation, Milley should be asked—kindly but forcefully—to retire. 

Now the chairman is—more than anything else—the primary military advisor to the president. So ultimately it is Milley’s relationship with Biden that is the foremost consideration. However, with all due respect to General Milley, he is not irreplaceable. There are numerous flag officers who can represent the Pentagon to President Biden (after Jan. 20). But we have now seen the effect in the Pentagon of having two leaders with near-identical backgrounds—and it was not a good experience.

Lloyd Austin needs a chairman with whom he has little to no history, who will speak for the Joint Staff, but who will have enough formal distance that Secretary Austin is pushed to use the Secretariat. Process will be important. As Secretary Austin steps more and more into his political role as the president’s representative, a more independent-minded chairman, representing different constituencies in the Pentagon, will become more and more critical. This, of course, presumes that Lloyd Austin’s nomination progresses and he is confirmed (and waivered). Should someone else become defense secretary, then this objection is moot and General Milley should serve out his term.

This new chairman should be a Navy admiral or an Air Force general (the Marines would almost certainly put forward another infantry officer—not what Austin needs). Additionally, one would hope for a chairman who has a focus on and history in Asia, which does not feature prominently in Secretary Austin’s resume.

President-elect Biden has made it clear that he has personal trust in the character and judgment of Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary. That trust should be honored; elections have consequences. But we should think deeply about the conditions to be set to make a Secretary Austin successful. Having a chairman who comes from the same background and community as the secretary is not in the best interests of the Pentagon.

For the good of the Department of Defense, upon Lloyd Austin’s confirmation as defense secretary, General Milley should tender his resignation.