WASHINGTON ― Long before he was U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, he was Marine Reserve Maj. Dan Sullivan, tapped to write U.S. Central Command’s strategy document and, by his telling, not getting much help from the subordinate commanders in the region. That is, until he went to Lloyd Austin, then CENTCOM’s two-star chief of staff.
“He did a big video teleconference with all the subordinate commanders and said in very forceful language: This guy is doing it and you better help him,” Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Defense News.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and their roles were reversed, in a sense. Austin, a retired CENTCOM commander and President Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, was receiving an introduction and endorsement speech from the guy he went to bat for.
Sullivan was now a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee at Austin’s confirmation hearing. Endorsing a Democratic nominee after a heated election was noteworthy. Publicly lobbying his GOP colleagues to follow suit was even more unusual.
In a fractured 50-50 Senate, cross-party relationships like the one between Austin and Sullivan may make the difference for the Biden administration as it looks to work across the aisle, and for Republicans trying to assert their own priorities after losing control of the Senate and White House.
Though Sullivan, a dogged booster for his home state’s defense interests, suggested Austin could be an ally for increasing the defense budget, he also has faith in the former Army four-star’s military experience and character. He says he saw it up close.
“I was one of hundreds, the low man on the totem pole,” Sullivan said, describing his time as a staff officer for then-Gen. John Abizaid, who led CENTCOM, “and when you see how people treat not just their superiors, but their subordinates down the chain of command, particularly at the Pentagon, it’s very revealing.”
Sullivan, 56, wasn’t just a Reserve officer, but a former economic advisor in the Bush White House in his civilian life who later served as Alaska’s attorney general and natural resources commissioner. And Austin, 67, wasn’t just any general but a Silver Star recipient for his role leading the 3rd Infantry Division’s invasion of Iraq who went on to command the XVIII Airborne Corps, supervise the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and serve as Army vice chief of staff.
Austin’s confirmation as defense secretary — by a 93-2 vote last week — was more contentious than that final tally suggested. He had to combat lawmaker concerns that having another retired general as defense secretary so soon would erode civilian control of the military.
But Sullivan took an opposite tack, defending Mattis’s tenure and saying he favored Austin because of his 40-year military career, not in spite of it.
“If you don’t have Gen. Austin on the national security team and the broader Biden Cabinet, there is literally no one ― with the exception of [transportation secretary designee] Pete Buttigieg ― who has spent one day in uniform,” Sullivan told Defense News. “And that is not healthy either, not wise.”
Sullivan expects Austin to protect the defense budget, which is expected to come under pressure from progressive Democrats. Sullivan was an outspoken opponent of Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ failed effort to cut the 2020 defense budget by ten percent, which is expected to get new traction with Sanders as Senate Budget Committee chairman in the new Senate.
“There’s going to a huge battle on this front, and I’m hopeful. I got his commitment that Austin’s not somebody who’s going to go quietly if the Senate, the House and the Biden administration want to gut the military,” Sullivan said.
“You can study the military, you can be a think tank warrior, but if you haven’t spent time in uniform, you haven’t been to boot camp, if you haven’t seen what happens when there’s dramatic cuts to the defense budget, you’re going to be less than an advocate.”
To be clear, Austin parried most budgetary questions at his hearing, including a request from Senate Armed Services chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to commit to 3 to 5 percent annual increases in the defense budget to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Austin is expected to defend the Biden administration’s budget, which is expected to be flat, said Mackenzie Eaglen, of the American Enterprise Institute. Moreover, combatant commanders don’t normally learn bureaucratic budget fighting skills.
“Combatant commanders only ask/take. They do not have to worry about the dough or time that is required to man, train and equip the forces they need for whatever mission,” Eaglen said. “It’s just not in the DNA, or their background, to care about D.C. budget battles.”
For his part, Austin did agree to Sullivan’s request to work with the committee to ensure Navy and Air Force Arctic strategies are “appropriately resourced and that we can protect our strategic interests in the Arctic.”
The Air Force strategy calls for the defense department to modernize Air Force and Space Force installations in the region, which include major air bases in Alaska like Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Thule Air Base in Greenland, and remote radar sites that make up the North Warning System.
The Navy statement, titled “A Blue Arctic,” provides an outline of planned operational changes for the military’s sea services in and around Alaska, including the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps.
Sullivan advocates further changes — including making Alaska the home port for one or more Coast Guard icebreakers. He argues the United States is losing strategic ground in the Arctic to Russia and China.
Austin also accepted Sullivan’s invitation to visit Alaska, calling it a “national treasure,” that “holds some of our most important military assets and resources.”
Sullivan’s frequent requests of witnesses to travel north to see his home state up close have become a topic of amusement to fellow committee members. But in the case of Austin, it may be less of a rite of passage and more of a happy reunion between two unlikely allies.
With Leo Shane III, Aaron Mehta and The Associated Press.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.