The Defense Secretary and the Chain of Command: Why Critics Are Wrong About Austin's Emergency

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Israel Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, after their meeting about Israel's military operation in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. (AP photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was recently hospitalized for prostate cancer surgery and apparently incommunicado for a few days in early January. Although Austin never lost consciousness or went under general anesthesia, some members of Congress and media commentators have described the situation as reckless and irresponsible and one of great peril for the United States. These critics contend that, by failing to inform the president or the White House staff in good time, Austin left open the possibility of disruption of the civilian and military chains of command by ambiguous delegation of authority during his absence.

Much of that criticism is misplaced, some of it motivated by partisan discontent with the Biden administration's national security policy, while some commentators are simply misinformed. There are at least two reasons these criticisms are simply wrong, and a few reasons the critics are misguided in their complaints.

First, the military chain of command runs from the president, to the secretary of defense, to the combatant commanders who are in charge of the unified or specified warfighting commands for the armed forces. The president is the commander in chief of the armed forces and can issue orders at any time with or without the secretary of defense. In fact, on Jan. 11, the Biden administration and the British struck dozens of Houthi targets in Yemen, a matter that President Joe Biden had discussed with his national security team on Jan. 1. Not only did Austin participate in that meeting, he also directed the operation on Jan. 11 from his hospital room.

In the absence of the secretary of defense, presidential orders would go directly to the combatant commanders and to the deputy secretary of defense, who would presumably inform their staff. In this case, the deputy secretary of defense apparently was informed that Austin was temporarily unavailable and received the delegation of authority, although whether she was informed the reasons why is less clear.

Second, in the extreme and unlikely situation that a timely response to attack is necessary while the civilian delegation of authority in the Pentagon is ambiguous, and the president and secretary are unavailable, the combatant commanders are authorized to respond to imminent threats. They are required to promptly notify the president, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser and other principals if emergency action is taken. For example, a nuclear missile attack on a U.S. military base overseas, or even worse, on the American homeland, would not be ignored by a paralyzed chain of command.

Setting aside the fact that there never was a risk to the military's ability to manage threats during Austin's medical emergency, public officials should be careful not to convey to the world the mistaken impression that the United States is a helpless sleeping giant if one or more officials in the defense chain of command are temporarily out of pocket. Bureaucracies have their faults, but one of their redeeming features is that there is always someone backstopping his or her immediate superior who is, or should be, prepared to step in and assume command.

But beyond the logistics of the hubbub, Austin has served his country for decades as a military officer, much of it in combat, and now as a cabinet official. He is entitled to a presumption of good faith, especially under the exigent medical conditions. There are grounds to question how the process of intradepartmental and interagency communication worked in early January and how it might be improved, and Congress should work with the Department of Defense on a postmortem. Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff; Kelly E. Magsamen, Austin's chief of staff; and Robert P. Storch, the Pentagon's inspector general, have all already opened investigations into what happened and why.

However, this episode does raise the issue about whether the Pentagon as a one-size-fits-all military headquarters is perhaps a dated World War II-era construct. We should ask if it's time to consider whether a distributed Department of Defense command system that is more adapted to the technology of the 21st century should replace the five-sided pyramid next to Arlington, Virginia.

-- Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Navy captain and a former assistant secretary of defense.

-- Stephen Cimbala is a professor of political science at Penn State University, Brandywine.

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