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January 12, 2021

ICYMI: Inhofe Opening Remarks at Armed Services Committee Hearing on Civilian Control of the U.S. Military

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, today delivered opening remarks at the committee’s hearing on civilian control of the military in light of President-elect Joe Biden’s intention to nominate Lloyd Austin to be the next Secretary of Defense. 

Witnesses include: Dr. Lindsay P. Cohn, Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College; and Dr. Kathleen J. McInnis, Specialist in International Security at the Congressional Research Service. 

As Prepared for Delivery: 

Good morning.  The committee meets this morning to receive testimony on civilian control of the Armed Forces.  I’d like to welcome our witnesses who are experts on the topic of civilian-military relations and the importance to implementing effective national security: Dr. Lindsay P. Cohn, currently Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College; and Dr. Kathleen J. McInnis, Specialist in International Security at the Congressional Research Service. Welcome.

The president-elect has announced his intention to nominate Lloyd Austin to be the next Secretary of Defense. This is similar to the situation we encountered with General Mattis four years ago, and the plan is to follow the same process we used then. 

As we did in 2017, the first step, which we are taking today, is an outside experts hearing on Civilian Control of the Armed Services. This will be followed by a nomination hearing for General Austin, currently planned for January 19. 

After these two hearings are complete, the committee will vote on new legislation that would grant an exception to the longstanding law that requires a candidate to have been retired from active military service for seven years before being appointed as Secretary of Defense.  

Given his retirement in 2016, General Austin’s nomination will require Congress to pass legislation providing an exception to the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, which stipulates the seven-year requirement.

This requirement is intended to preserve civilian control of the Armed Forces—a bedrock principle of American democracy. It has been waived only twice in the last 70 years. 

As we did four years ago when we considered a waiver for General Mattis, we must understand why this individual is uniquely qualified, at this point in time, to lead the Department of Defense.

I want to make it clear that the concerns I highlight regarding a waiver are not a reflection on the personal attributes of General Austin. General Austin has served with distinguished service to our nation, and I thank him for his willingness to serve again. 

In considering whether to provide a waiver, as we know, the Secretary of Defense carries a broader set of responsibilities. Beyond authority over our men and women in uniform, the Secretary must articulate, drive and implement the nation’s defense policy—while managing the world’s largest and most complex organization. 

A career in uniform certainly provides important insight, but does not necessarily prepare someone for interagency battles, engaging the American public, and congressional oversight. 

Upon the nomination of James Mattis four years ago, Leon Panetta, a former Secretary of Defense said the Secretary must “…exercise the ability to understand political issues, to deal with broader issues that involve your capability to relate to the American people.”

After 40 years of successful military service, it would be natural and comfortable for Lloyd Austin to surround himself with previous military colleagues, who likely make up the bulk of his contacts, rather than selecting or recommending strong civilian candidates for senior civilian leadership positions in the Department.   

Another fair question is that if both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are from the same Service and have had similar military experiences – will the president get the necessary diversity of opinion and expertise required to optimally address tough national security problems?

It is also reasonable to ask whether the appointment of two generals to political positions in four years will increase politicization of the senior military officer corps. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the involvement of retired general and flag officers in political matters, including endorsement of political candidates, grow at an accelerating pace. 

By possibly making it the rule rather than the exception to grant a waiver, do we undermine the current norm of apolitical senior military leadership that has served this nation so well?  

Fundamentally, this is a decision involving civilian control of the military alongside the president’s desire to nominate a cabinet member in whom he places great trust.

So we need to assess: 1) What makes General Austin uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Defense; 2) How will he ensure that civilian leadership, and not the uniformed military, controls policy; and 3) What lessons should we draw from the tenures of former Secretaries Mattis and Marshall?

As I've said many times – this book – the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission Report, serves as a blueprint for what we need to do to win a set of long-term strategic competitions, and includes strong views on the need for a healthy civil-military balance.

The Commission’s report cautions “decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.” We need to consider that warning as we take next steps.

For example, military leaders must follow orders and win battles. But civilian leaders must determine when and why to fight those battles – a profoundly different question. 

Let’s be clear: the United States faces the most daunting set of security challenges I can recall in my lifetime – a rising China, a belligerent Russia and the continued threat from rogue regimes and global terrorism.

Confronting these threats will require innovative approaches to modernize the joint force, harness new technologies, and develop strategies to compete across all domains of warfare.   

We can't afford to lose time. We are already falling behind in critical capabilities like hypersonics, and our adversaries are expanding their cyber, missile, and nuclear capabilities at an alarming pace.

What we need to determine in this case is whether what the president wants is also best for the nation. The stakes couldn't be higher. Senator Reed. 

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