On Jan. 22, General Lloyd Austin became the first African American to serve as the United States Secretary of Defense. The U.S. Senate confirmed him in a 93-2 majority vote to serve under the Biden Administration. As a four-star Army general and the former commander for the U.S. Central Command, Austin has had a long-standing relationship with President Joe Biden as he served as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq during President Obama’s term.
As part of his role, Austin is in charge of overseeing the Department of Defense. He will act as the primary defense policymaker and advisor, a crucial role amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the U.S. Pentagon, the defense budget for 2021 is $740 million, a 1% increase compared to the previous year. Early reports have stated that Austin intends to use the budget to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, build a strong defense alongside NATO, and deter security threats in the Middle East and China.
Born in 1953 in Alabama, Lloyd Austin was raised in Thomasville, Georgia, and later graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1975. He continued to pursue his education, earning a Master of Arts degree in counselor education from Auburn University and a Master of Business Administration in business management from Webster University.
While studying at Auburn University for his master’s degree, Lloyd Austin met Charlene Denise Banner. The two married in 1988 and do not have any children. Currently, Charlene Austin works as a non-profit administrator and serves the Military Family Research Institute board at Purdue University.
After receiving his master’s, Austin completed the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and graduated from the Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College.
After graduating from Westpoint, Austin was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and stationed in Germany for three years. He then served as an operations officer in Indianapolis, a company tactical officer in New York, and the operations and executive officer at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Drum. In early 2000, Austin was offered the opportunity to serve as the Chief Joint Operations Division, J-3, in the Pentagon in Virginia. In 2005, he was assigned as the Chief of Staff of the United States Central Command in Tampa, Florida. The following year, Austin was promoted to lieutenant general and became the second-highest-ranking officer in Iraq, where he was in charge of the Multi-National Corps – Iraq. As commander of the sector, he directed all operations and controls for over 152,000 joint and coalition forces all across Iraq.
In August of 2009, Austin resigned his command of the thousands of troops in Iraq to become the Director of Joint Staff. The role would allow him to assist the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a cabinet of senior military officers within the United States Armed Forces who advise the Secretary of Defense and the President on military matters. Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, directed Austin to increase the joint chief staff cabinet’s diversity. Later, Austin credited Mullen as jumpstarting his later career.
In early September 2010, General Austin was promoted to Commanding General (CG) of United States Forces – Iraq. In this crucial role, Austin was in charge of all United States coalition forces in Iraq, an essential job in the middle of heightened tensions between the United States and Iraq. Austin requested 4,000 more troops to be stationed in Iraq and oversaw all advisory, training, and equipment for the Iraqi Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry’s security agencies.
In 2010, General Austin played an essential role in the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, and he focused on ensuring sserved as the principal deputy to the Army’s chief of staff and became the second-highest-ranking officer on active dutytability throughout the transition period. As a part of his role, he was heavily involved in negotiation with both the U.S. and the Iraqi government, which eventually led to the Strategic Partnership Agreement’s signing. The agreement was designed to “help the Iraqi people stand on their own and reinforce Iraqi sovereignty while protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East.” As a fierce opponent of complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Austin insisted that, after 2011, at least 10,000 U.S. troops were stationed in the country following the official end of the Iraq War.
After the war in Iraq, Austin returned home and was nominated to become Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army (VCSA). In the role, Austin in the Army. During his time serving as VSCA, Austin pushed to decrease the number of suicides in the military ranks. He advocated for better psychiatric treatment by the Army for those with physical and mental illnesses.
After being nominated by President Obama, Austin became the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander in March of 2013. His responsibilities included planning and conducting operations in the Middle East, including Egypt, and Central Asia, and parts of South Asia. However, Austin was mainly regarded as an “invisible general” because he refused to speak publicly about most military matters. As commander of CENTCOM, Austin worked to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) who had taken control of northern Iraq in 2014. Austin pushed his belief that the primary target for operations should be ISIL in Iraq instead of Syria.
On April 5, 2016, General Lloyd Austin officially retired from the armed services at Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia.
In early December 2020, reports began to arise that Biden would nominate Austin as Secretary of Defense. Biden and Austin’s relationship went back to 2013 when Austin served as CENTCOM commander during the Obama administration. According to multiple reports, Biden grew to trust Austin throughout that time. However, in order to be appointed as Secretary of Defense, Austin required a Congressional waiver of the National Security Act of 1947 to bypass the seven-year waiting period after leaving active-duty military. On Jan. 21, Congress granted Austin the waiver by a 326–78 vote in the House of Representatives and a 69–27 vote in the Senate, making him eligible for his nomination.
Austin took office as the U.S. Secretary of Defense on January 22, 2021.
Among his early acts as Secretary of Defense, Austin removed former-President Trump’s appointees from the Pentagon advisory boards and paid a visit to the National Guard, who were currently deployed to Washington D.C.
In February 2021, Secretary Austin coordinated military defensive airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria. The airstrike, which was previously recommended due to the Iranian attacks on American civilians residing in Iraq, served as retaliation under Biden’s direction. However, these attacks were deemed controversial, with the Washington Post reporting that the “[Austin’s] actions rekindled long-standing debates about the legality of U.S. military intervention in Syria.” Furthermore, critics began to argue that the airstrikes were not approved by the U.S. Congress, making them illegal and unethical.
On Feb. 25, Secretary Austin publicly emphasized the need for American warships throughout the globe in order to deter security threats, mostly from China in the Indo-Pacific region and Iran in the Middle-East region.
Additionally, Austin has worked to deploy the COVID-19 vaccine for military personnel in Texas and New York. By late February, Austin had approved the deployment of 25 military vaccination teams and a total of about 4,700 service members. Military officials reported that service members are delivering 6,000 shots a day in Los Angeles, on average.
Austin has also acknowledged the reluctance and hesitation in the Black community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He has promised to work towards countering this hesitation and stated that he believes the vaccine is safe. He believes that with enough information about the vaccine, people will make the right decision.
In a meeting with the NATO Defense Ministerial, Secretary Austin reaffirmed President Biden’s message that the United States intends to revitalize its relationship with the NATO Alliance. Furthermore, he emphasized that NATO’s most important task is to protect the country’s populations and territory and present a credible and strong defense by citing the multiple threats and challenges facing the Alliance. In a press report, he stated how this includes “destabilizing behavior by Russia, a rising China, terrorism, and global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change.”
As a closing remark at the meeting, Secretary Austin emphasized the Department of Defense’s continuous commitment to working with NATO to ensure democratic nations remain global hubs for innovation.