New SecDef Puts Climate Crisis, Rebuilding Alliances on Military To-Do List

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2021. (Jack Sanders/DoD)

Stopping the COVID-19 pandemic, countering China and other threats, and rebuilding alliances around the world are among the top issues on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's mind.

In a memo to the force dated March 4, Austin said that defending the nation, taking care of people in the Defense Department, and succeeding through teamwork are the three main priorities guiding the department's efforts.

"As the secretary of Defense, I am committed to ensuring that the department develops the right people, priorities and purpose of mission to continue to defend our nation from enemies foreign and domestic," he said in the memo. "We need resources matched to strategy, strategy matched to policy, and policy matched to the will of the American people."

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Austin called COVID-19 "the greatest proximate challenge to our nation's security," and listed the need to defeat the novel coronavirus first in the "defend the nation" section of his memo.

He pledged to have the military "continue to act boldly and quickly to support federal government efforts to defeat the disease," as well as protecting the military against its spread and working with domestic and international partners to protect against future outbreaks of new and deadly diseases.

This will include directly supporting vaccination efforts and encouraging service members to get the vaccine, Austin said. However, that has so far proven tricky, as nearly one-third of troops have refused to get vaccinated, officials said last month.

"Both of these challenges demand of us an aggressive effort to inform and educate people about the safety and efficacy of available vaccines and protective measures," he said.

Countering China will be the U.S. military's top "pacing challenge," Austin said. The military will need the right operational concepts, capabilities and plans to deter China and maintain America's competitive advantage, he said.

"We will ensure that our approach toward China is coordinated and synchronized across the enterprise to advance our priorities, integrated into domestic and foreign policy in a whole-of-government strategy, strengthened by alliances and partnerships, and supported on a bipartisan basis in Congress," he said in the memo.

At the same time, he said, the U.S. will have to remain ready to deter "advanced and persistent threats" from Russia, Iran and North Korea, and to disrupt violent, non-state extremist groups like the Islamic State that operate across nations. Austin said the U.S. will use its tools to "lower the risk of escalation with our adversaries" and respond to challenges without resorting to violence.

And the military must face the "growing climate crisis" that is affecting its ability to carry out missions, Austin said. The Pentagon will make addressing the climate a national security priority, he said, and fold climate considerations into war gaming, modeling and simulations.

The military also will try to reduce its carbon footprint, and "lead the way for alternative climate-considered approaches for the country," he added.

Austin said that the military must ensure its leadership is held accountable as part of its efforts to take care of its people -- and highlighted the problems of sexual assault and harassment and extremism in the ranks.

"Some behaviors are antithetical to our values, undermine our readiness, and put our effectiveness at risk, but are alive within our workforce," Austin said. "In particular, we will not tolerate sexual assault and sexual harassment.

"Similarly, extremism presents a complex and unique challenge to DoD," he added. "We must meet this head-on, working to stamp out extremism among the ranks, permanently."

It will be up to leaders in the Defense Department, at all levels, to build a safe environment for their people, Austin said, and to show that anyone who doesn't uphold the military's highest standards will be held accountable, swiftly and clearly.

Austin also stressed the importance of partnerships and alliances with other nations.

"Our allies and partners are a force multiplier and one of the greatest strategic assets we have in protecting our nation," he said. "As we face complex challenges that span across borders, our success will depend on how closely we work with our friends around the world to secure our common interests and promote our shared values. We cannot meet our responsibilities alone, nor should we try."

Rebuilding alliances has been a priority for President Joe Biden, who frequently criticized former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail for what he called his neglect of the nation's allies.

"America is back," Biden said in his first foreign policy address as president last month. "Diplomacy is back."

Austin said the military will consult with allies and partners, acting together with them when appropriate. When one nation lacks another's capabilities, that ally could fill that void, Austin said, "making us stronger as a team than the sum of our individual parts."

The military will also have to work with all levels of government and society in America, he said. That means cooperating not just with local, state, tribal and federal governments, but also others who have a stake in national security, including Congress, private industry and the American people, he said.

"We will redouble our commitment to a cooperative, whole-of-nation approach to national security that builds consensus, drives creative solutions to crises, and guarantees that we lead from a position of strength -- fielding a credible force, ready to back up the hard work of our diplomats around the world and our national partners here at home," Austin said.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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