Today's D Brief: Austin’s nomination; Space base renamings; Vax deployment worries; RIP, Yeager; And a bit more.
It’s Lloyd Austin’s time in the spotlight. He’s a retired four-star Army general who could be the next leader of the Pentagon. Politico reported Monday evening that Austin, 67, will be nominated by President-elect Joe Biden as the man to lead the Defense Department in 2021. Multiple outlets — including the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — later confirmed the news throughout the evening.
If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be America’s first-ever Black defense secretary. Already, he is “the first Black officer to command a division [in combat] and the first Black officer to oversee a theater of war,” the Post reports.
But just like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis under President Donald Trump, Austin would need a congressional waiver to lead the Pentagon because he hasn’t been out of the uniform for at least seven years, as mandated by Congress. And that point in particular — installing another former general to lead the military, in addition to Biden passing over female SecDef contender Michèle Flournoy — roused considerable dissent among Pentagon-watchers Monday evening on Twitter. See, e.g., feedback from Jim Golby, Loren DeJonge Schulman, Katrina Mulligan, Eric Sayers, and more, including James Joyner, a Marine Corps University professor, who urges lawmakers to deny the waiver, writing in Defense One: “Congress Should Vote ‘No’ on Austin. It Likely Won’t.”
Austin hails from Mobile, Ala., and retired from the Army in 2016 after 41 years in service. Just before retirement, he’d spent almost three years in charge of the U.S. military’s Central Command. In his time there, he oversaw the U.S. response to the Islamic State group’s rise in Iraq and Syria, including the ill-fated effort to train and equip Syrian rebels. One month after the U.S. officially declared war on ISIS, the NYTs called him America’s “invisible general” because of his low-profile way of avoiding the press and public events like think tank interviews in Washington. Three years prior, in 2011, Austin oversaw the U.S. forces in Iraq and the drawdown that year.
What’s he been doing lately? After retirement, he formed the Austin Strategy Group, which is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. Now, he “serves on the boards of Raytheon, Tenet Healthcare, United Technologies and Nucor Corporation,” AL.com reports. Those defense contractor connections, like his waiver requirement, also drew dissenting reactions on Twitter from observers like Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
So, why select Austin and not, say, Flournoy or Jeh Johnson? "There would be less tension” with Austin, a former defense official close to the transition speculated to Politico. “The relationship would be smoother,” the person added in a defense some observers found underwhelming. The Times, however, reported “Austin’s lower profile...may match with Mr. Biden’s hopes for a more muted Defense Department.”
Big picture observation for the military: “Some 43 percent of active-duty troops are people of color,” the Times notes. “But the people making crucial decisions are almost entirely white and male.”
The challenges facing whoever leads the Pentagon first under President Biden are no cake walk, the Wall Street Journal writes. And that list includes “manag[ing] the distribution of vaccines for the novel coronavirus, improv[ing] diversity within the military’s top ranks, and tackl[ing] climate change as a national security threat.” More here.
From Defense One
Biden Selects Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for Defense Secretary, Reportedly // Kevin Baron: Austin, the last commander of the Iraq War, would be the nation's first Black defense secretary.
Trump Admin to Rename Two Bases for Space Force Over Military Objections // Marcus Weisgerber: The Air Force had quietly agreed with Congress not to change anything until the NDAA settles a way forward on Confederate base names.
Why We Need a New ICBM // Maj. Shane Praiswater: The arguments for keeping a nuclear triad.
Congress Should Vote ‘No’ on Austin. It Likely Won’t. // James Joyner: It's hard to vote against a popular general. That's one reason why lawmakers barred the appointment of recently retired officers as defense secretary.
‘This Must Be Your First’ // Zeynep Tufekci, The Atlantic: Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t.
CISA Warns About Iran’s Offensive Cyber Capabilities // Mariam Baksh, Nextgov: One observer suggests the alert is meant more for the adversary than defenders.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day one year ago, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 emerged in China.
How will Covid-19 vaccine deployment happen? Helen Branswell, who leads pandemic coverage for STAT News, lays out some of the main beats and looming problems. Among them: worries that the military may not quite understand how to work with state and local governments.
“There are things that the armed forces do amazingly well, and logistics is one of them. And logistics is a big challenge for this vaccination program,” said Tom Frieden, former CDC director and now president of the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. “But logistics is just one of many challenges for the program. And the impression I have is of a program being run as a logistics challenge, rather than a vaccination program with a logistic challenge within it.” Read on, here.
For the record: Pfizer says it can’t supply more vaccine doses for the U.S. until at least late June, the Washington Post reports. The federal government has ordered enough to vaccinate 50 million people and now wants more — but the company has already sold the rest of its near-term production to other countries.
Last summer, Pfizer offered to sell enough to treat 100 million people — but the feds said no. Why? One anonymous official told the Post: “Anyone who wanted to sell us…without an [FDA] approval, hundreds of millions of doses back in July and August, was just not going to get the government’s money.” Read on, here.
Big Idea: It has become so fast and relatively cheap to develop vaccines that we should launch a program to do so for all the major types of infectious diseases, argues David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine: “You may be surprised to learn that of the trio of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, the most promising, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5 percent efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13.” Read that, here.
The U.S. believes Eritrean soldiers have joined the war in neighboring Ethiopia, Reuters reports.
Why this matters: If true, it “creates a potential policy predicament as Washington views Ethiopia as a major ally in the volatile Horn of Africa but accuses Eritrea of severe rights abuses.” More here.
One window into how China spies: U.S. officials believe Beijing’s main civilian spy agency ran a political intelligence operation from 2011 and 2015 in which a suspected Chinese operative developing extensive ties with local and national politicians, even bundling political contributions for a U.S. Representative. Axios reports after a yearlong investigation, here.
The U.S. wants to sell Taiwan another $280 million in military communications gear. Details (PDF), here.
Related reading: “Time to Rethink Arms Sales to Taiwan,” by George Mason University's A. Trevor Thrall and Jordan Cohen, writing in Defense One on Nov. 2.
Apropos of nothing: The former head of Israel’s space security program reportedly has some pretty out-there ideas about aliens, according to the Jerusalem Post. President Trump has allegedly been briefed on this guy’s ideas, and Trump wanted to tell the world — but has so far been convinced to stay mum. More on that…uhm…reporting, here.
And lastly today: Yeager heads into the wild blue yonder. A legend in the aviation community long before his public reputation soared, Chuck Yeager died on Monday at age 97. The WWII ace and retired Air Force general was, most famously, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier. Here are Yeager’s formal pilot notes from that flight; if we cannot all break records in the sky, we should at least strive to write so clearly.