Lloyd Austin pressed his extended forefinger into the table, a sign the new secretary of defense was serious. He had called a meeting Wednesday with his most senior military leaders to address what he believes are among the most pressing issues facing the country and the armed services: racism and domestic extremism. And as he told the leaders of the military branches in his deliberate, measured pace to “get after it,” he repeatedly thumped the table with his finger, according to a senior defense official familiar with the call.
Shortly before Austin announced a staggered pause and review of domestic extremism within the ranks, known in the military as a stand down, he emphasized to those in attendance that the vast majority of service members conduct themselves with honor and integrity but stressed his determination to find out how many espouse beliefs and ideas antithetical to the values of the military.
It is one of a number of early priorities that have made Austin’s first days at the Pentagon very different from his predecessors’, focusing internally on issues within the military, instead of outward on adversaries abroad.
As well as domestic extremism, Austin has directed the Pentagon to tackle sexual assault and review the department’s numerous advisory boards and committees during a period when most of his predecessors were already visiting key US allies around the world shortly after their swearing-in.
“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 said at his confirmation hearing.
In addition, Austin pegged coronavirus as the “greatest challenge to our country right now,” and has a meeting on Covid every day, according to the senior defense official.
One day after his swearing-in, Austin instructed the services to come up with measures to address sexual assault, giving them two weeks to deliver a summary of the ones that had worked and those that failed. He also threw his full support behind President Joe Biden’s repeal of the transgender ban, saying the armed services should welcome the “best possible talent in our population, regardless of gender identity.”
But his most dramatic move was on extremism, where Austin gave the military branches 60 days to pause and review the issue. He wants leaders of each branch to give clear guidance on how troops should behave, as well as to “gain insight” from members on the “scope of the problem from their view,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
At his confirmation hearing, Austin acknowledged the task ahead. “I don’t think this is a thing that you can put a Band-Aid on and leave alone, he said. “I think that training needs to go on routinely.”
One senior defense official said these are the issues that can be “corrosive” to a military force, eating away at the moral and ethical core of a unit, which is meant to bind it as a fighting force.
On Tuesday, Austin also dismissed hundreds of members of the Pentagon’s 40 or more advisory boards and committees, ordering a review of the structure and function of the groups. The move was largely motivated by the Trump administration stacking the boards with loyalists in its waning days.
None of these issues, besides the pandemic, were seen as pressing concerns when Austin was nominated in early December. But in the ensuing weeks, he quickly realized the challenges at home were going to be a major focus of his tenure.
“You immediately walk into a firestorm of things that you have to take care of,” said Eliot Cohen, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former member of the Defense Policy Board.
Austin has reversed traditional roles.
Austin’s priorities have also reversed the traditional roles of the secretary and deputy secretary of defense, where the former faces outward and the latter inward.
“Normally the deputy secretary is ‘Mr. or Ms. Inside,