General Lloyd Austin
General Lloyd Austin Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

In a little over a month’s time, the movers will have made over the White House, bringing in the Biden’s belongings. Jill Biden can then put her stamp on the James Hoban-designed residence that has been a landmark on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the turn of the 19th Century.

Her husband, Joe, is already putting his stamp on the place even though he officially doesn’t get the keys until January 20. The president-elect’s transition work is well underway, and he’s busy filling his top cabinet posts. And when it came to nominating the new Secretary of Defence, Biden simply picked up the phone and called his own friend, retired four-star general Lloyd Austin.

Gen. Austin has been a family friend for the best part of 20 years, the two have socialised and, for the incoming president and father who’s felt the very deep and personal pain of losing his son, Beau, to brain cancer after he left the US military, the new Secretary of Defence can relate. He and Beau were regular churchgoers every Sunday, sitting and praying together in the same pew.

“In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency,” President-elect Biden wrote in The Atlantic magazine this week. “He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot.

“Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defence and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face,” Biden wrote. “He is the person we need in this moment.”

Gen. Austin will also make history, becoming the first Black to lead the Pentagon. He may have all the credentials as a top soldier and military leader — but he still faces a rearguard mopping up operation of sorts in Washington when it comes to winning approval from the US Senate — and convincing a majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill that enough time has elapsed between his time in uniform and his mission now as Secretary of Defence.

If approved, Austin will lead a department that is the world’s largest employer, with 1.3 million active duty troops and a total of more than 2.8 million employees. He does not, however, meet the standard set by US federal law requiring defence secretaries to have been out of active-duty service for seven years before taking the top civilian post and some of President-elect Biden’s closest allies are squeamish — if not outright opposed — to granting the waiver that would allow him to do so. Waivers have only been granted twice since the defence secretary position was created, most recently for James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first appointment to the office.

The epic nature of Austin’s journey, from a childhood in deeply segregated Alabama, through a military still plagued with racial inequity, to the pinnacle of US national defence — might be matched only by the scale of the challenges that would face him there.

In tapping Austin, Biden is choosing a former colleague he knows well from years working together during the Obama administration, a period that saw Austin lead US Central Command, serve as vice chief of staff of the Army, and commanding general of US forces in Iraq. He also drew down 150,000 US forces from Iraq during the Obama presidency.

In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency. He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room

- President-elect Joe Biden

The past four years have seen the Pentagon strained. As well as maintaining US land, sea and air power and their long-standing policy of being able to fight two wars in separate parts of the globe at any one time, there are other pressing conventional challenges too. China and its claims to the South China Sea, the ongoing risks poised from North Korea, restoring links with Nato allies, US forces in Germany — and what happens across the wider Middle East region from the Sahel to the Levant, from the Bab Al Mandab to the Strait of Hormuz, Syria and Afghanistan — all are files sitting on Austin’s desk as soon as he sits down.

If that’s not enough, how can he utilise US military logistics to distribute vaccines in a mass inoculation programme across the 50 states. And he’ll be only too well aware that it took the US military three days to deliver water to the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at a time when it had the capability to deliver faster.

The face of war is changing too. Unmanned drones, artificial intelligence, robot soldiers and automatic weapons systems will soon dominate any conventional battlefield — or cyberterrorists and an army of computer experts will be the next reserves of servicemen needed at the Pentagon.

The 67-year-old was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1953, a time of sharply truncated opportunity for African Americans. He retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Austin was awarded the military’s third highest military decoration for valour, five of the highest non-combat related military awards and a slew of other honours.

He was the highest-ranked and most decorated Black serviceman. While Black service members represent 43 per cent of combat troops, they make up only 9 per cent of the mostly White, male officer corps. President-elect Biden notes in The Atlantic that Austin was “the 200th person ever to attain the rank of an Army four-star general, but only the sixth African American.”

Austin got there through West Point, went on later to earn a Master’s in Education from Auburn University and a Master’s in Business Management from Webster University. He’s been married to his wife Charlene for 40 years.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe