Retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, former commander of U.S. Central Command and a Silver Star recipient from the Iraq war, may become the first Black secretary of defense.
Citing sources with knowledge of Biden's decision making, Axios reported Nov. 27 that Austin is now in the mix of potential candidates to lead the Pentagon. Other names reportedly under consideration include former Defense Department official Michelle Flournoy; former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson; and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and combat veteran.
Flournoy, the former defense undersecretary for Policy and co-founder of the influential Center for a New American Security, has long been considered the frontrunner for defense secretary. But speculation on other possible choices percolated last week after Biden named other members of his national security team but left his pick for SecDef unannounced.
Progressive Democrats have urged Biden to avoid a defense secretary choice with ties to the defense industry, and Flournoy's ties are extensive.
In a Nov. 12 letter to Biden, Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., never mentioned Flournoy's name but said that "we write to request that the next secretary of Defense have no prior employment history with a defense contractor."
Pocan is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Lee is the chairwoman emeritus of the caucus.
Flournoy is on the board of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. She also cofounded the consultancy WestExec Advisors, which has defense contractors as clients. The other cofounder was State Department official Tony Blinken, named by Biden as his choice for secretary of state.
The 67-year-old Austin, a West Point graduate, also has ties to the defense industry. Months after retiring in 2016, Austin joined the board of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies.
Austin's expressed belief that coalition building is a vital component to military operations aligns with Biden's emphasis on strengthening alliances to deter potential conflict with Russia and China.
Austin said in a 2018 interview with the Army that "the necessity of coalitions, comprising willing and able partners, built and maintained through security force assistance activities, is an essential enabling capability" for today's military.
Austin also said he had experienced a number of transformations in military thinking during his time in uniform, but "the one constant that I have observed throughout all of these transformations, the one essential element of continuity that we could always rely on, was the American soldier."
Despite his service record, Austin could face opposition in a Senate confirmation hearing.
Critics could cite his wobbly September 2015 testimony when he was head of Central Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then chaired by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
The hearing focused on a program to train Syrian rebels for the fight against the Islamic State, on which the U.S. had already spent $42 million.
Austin gave a shaky account of how the money was being spent and said the number of trainees who had gone through the program was "definitely smaller than expected."
When pressed on how many were actually in the field fighting ISIS, Austin said "It's a small number," and then added that possibly "four or five" were in the fight.
McCain told Austin that in 30 years on the Armed Services Committee "I have never heard testimony like this, never."
"I have never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert as what you are saying," McCain told Austin.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.