Austin, a four-star Army general who spent more than 40 years in the ranks, was approved by an overwhelming 93-2 vote in the Senate. A day earlier, the House and Senate also approved waiver language to allow Austin, who retired in 2016, to serve in the post despite a law mandating a seven-year gap between military service and the top civilian defense job.
The vote, which came two days after President Joe Biden was sworn in as commander in chief, erased fears of a possible lengthy wait for the new administration’s national security team to be put in place. Biden has said that Austin, 67, has “intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense” that will be crucial as his team rewrites four years of military and defense policy under former President Donald Trump, and faces ongoing threats from overseas adversaries.
“[Austin] and I share a commitment to empowering our diplomats and development experts to lead our foreign policy, using force only as our last resort,” Biden wrote in an essay for The Atlantic in December explaining his decision.
“We must build a foreign policy that leads with diplomacy and revitalizes our alliances, putting American leadership back at the table and rallying the world to meet global threats to our security — from pandemics to climate change, from nuclear proliferation to the refugee crisis.”
During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Austin vowed to prioritize making the military “a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment” for all troops and civilians.
“If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” he said.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Austin, who served on the board of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, agreed at his confirmation hearing this week to recuse himself from decisions involving the company for four years.
He takes over a Pentagon that is likely to see tighter defense budgets than in recent years and continued questions about how to balance traditional threats like China and Russia with overseas terrorist and extremist groups.
“Globally I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” he told lawmakers.
He’ll also have to handle Biden’s call to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 20 years, something that none of the past three presidential administrations have been able to do. At his confirmation hearing, he expressed openness to leaving a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan.
In recent days, multiple lawmakers hailed Austin not only as a capable leader for the military but also as an important figure to emphasize the need for diversity in the armed forces.
In a Washington Post editorial published Thursday, Iraq War veteran Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., called Austin a potentially transformational leader for the military at a time of racial strife throughout the country.
“The rise in white nationalism is disturbing by itself, and is accompanied by two concerning trends regarding people of color within the department,” Brown wrote. “A lack of diversity in senior military and civilian ranks, as well as in coveted careers such as special forces, pilots and submariners, has led to Defense Department leadership that doesn’t reflect America.”
Just before Friday’s vote, incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., called Austin’s confirmation “an extraordinary, historic moment.”
“A significant portion of our forces are African-American, Latino or Latina, and now they can see themselves at the very top of the Department of Defense,” he told reporters.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., argued on Thursday that lawmakers needed to move quickly on Austin’s confirmation to help counter leadership turmoil in the department under Trump. Over his four year term, the department had six different permanent and acting secretaries.
“The disruption at the Pentagon has been enormous,” he said. “They need a fully confirmed secretary of defense immediately to begin to thoroughly clean up that mess and get the Pentagon back to being as effective as it needs to be … There is an urgency to this.”
Austin is expected to take his oath of office as early as this afternoon, and begin overseeing Pentagon operations right away.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is the Congress reporter for Defense News.