Pentagon chief calls for 'new vision' for American defense

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin applauds President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.  (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin applauds President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)

NAVAL STATION PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – In his first major speech as Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin on Friday called for developing a “new vision” for American defense in the face of emerging cyber and space threats and the prospect of fighting bigger wars.

Reflecting President Joe Biden's promise to put diplomacy first in dealing with foreign policy problems, Austin said the military should provide leverage that diplomats can use to prevent conflict. His comments suggested a contrast with what critics call the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

“U.S. military isn’t meant to stand apart, but to buttress U.S. diplomacy and advance a foreign policy that employs all of our instruments of national power,” Austin said.

He chose to spell out his ideas at Pearl Harbor, at the center of U.S. military power in the Indo-Pacific region, reflecting U.S. concerns that China's rapid modernization and growing assertiveness make it a powerful adversary. Notably, Austin in his speech did not explicitly mention China or North Korea.

In his first four-plus months as defense secretary, Austin has focused less on big policy pronouncements and more on immediate issues like the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and internal issues like extremism in the military, as well as launching broad reviews of defense strategy.

Speaking with the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri Memorial in the background, Austin cautioned that the U.S. military cannot be satisfied with believing it is the strongest and most capability military in the world today — “not at a time when our potential adversaries are very deliberately working to blunt our edge.” He appeared to be referring to China, which other officials say has accelerated its military modernization and sped up its construction of a wide range of sophisticated weaponry while the U.S. was focused for two decades on combatting extremist groups like al-Qaida in Afghanistan and, more recently, the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Austin, who spent more than 40 years in the Army, including as the top American commander in Iraq during the last years of U.S. combat there, noted that he had spent most of the past two decades in “the last of the old wars.”

“The way that we fight the next major war is going to look very different from the way that we fought the last ones,” he said. “We all need to drive toward a new vision of what it means to defend our nation.”