For the first time since 2010, Democrats control both houses of Congress, as well as the White House. Architect of the Capitol
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Democrats In Charge: What to Expect

Jan. 25, 2021

Narrow majorities in both houses mean smaller changes in policy ahead.

With Democrats controlling the House, Senate, and White House, and a new Defense Secretary taking up the job, the impact on defense policy, air and space investment, and the direction of national security strategy will be in flux in the year ahead. Yet with only a tie-breaking advantage in the Senate, experts expect incoming President Joe Biden’s defense policy to remain centrist, despite the hopes of some in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. 

Biden’s choice to lead the Pentagon is retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who led U.S. Central Command during the drawdown of forces in Iraq and during the early air war against the Islamic State group when the self-proclaimed caliphate first established a foothold in western Iraq and Syria. Biden, who was vice president at the time and involved with regional policy, forged a close relationship with Austin during that stretch. 

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would become the first Black Secretary of Defense and only the third former general to hold the position. Because he retired from the military in 2016, Congress must waive a provision barring former military members from holding the post within seven years of serving on Active duty. The House and Senate are expected to approve that waiver and confirm Austin, despite misgivings by some about blurring the lines over civilian control of the military or, among others, over selecting candidates with ties to the defense industry. If confirmed, he will be the third consecutive Secretary to have an infantry background, following retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis and retired Army Lt. Col. Mark T. Esper. 

He understands naval power, he understands space power, he understands air power … he really strives to get smarter in those areas.Former ACC chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, USAF (Ret.)

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, now retired, said he was surprised about the choice of another ground commander as Defense Secretary, but recalled Austin as a thoughtful, “very joint-thinking guy, which is a good thing for all services.” 

Austin’s performance in Iraq was “phenomenal,” Welsh said in a recent interview. “I think he’s a steady hand. … He’s not afraid to make tough calls.” 

Welsh recalled briefing Austin on his budget plans, as he would with all the combatant commanders. “Lloyd always was very understanding of the fact that trades had to be made. …  [There] wasn’t enough money for everything.” And he recalled that Austin was mindful of the value the capabilities provided by the other services. 

“I think he was always very appreciative of the fact that air power was a major part of the toolkit in CENTCOM,” he added.

Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, another retired Air Force general and president of the National Defense Industrial Association, ran Air Combat Command during Austin’s tenure at CENTCOM and was a classmate at the Army War College.

“He listens exceedingly well,” Carlisle recalled. “He’s not going to be the first guy to talk. He’s not going to be the one that dominates … a conversation.”

Carlisle praised Austin’s ability to listen to conflicting arguments and then choose a plan that made sense, even if it didn’t give everyone what they wanted. Austin could compromise when “he needed more of what I had, and I didn’t really have a lot more to give,” Carlisle said. “The key was that he’d listen to what I had to say.”

When sending Austin the additional air power he wanted would have forced Carlisle to “break red lines for deployment schedules,” Carlisle recalled, “I said, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at.’ I laid it all out for him. He took it all in, and said, ‘OK, so where’s the middle ground?’ And we found it.”

Neither Welsh nor Carlisle expressed concern that Austin’s Army background will bias his views of the joint force.

“I think he already has pivoted,” Carlisle said. “He understands naval power, he understands space power, he understands air power. … He really strives to get smarter in those areas.”

As Secretary, among Austin’s greatest challenges will be convincing a reluctant Congress that retiring aging systems will be beneficial, when lawmakers’ first concerns are often focused on retaining jobs in their home districts that may be tied to those platforms. Among programs that could see cuts—now that their former protectors are no longer in Congress—is the A-10 attack aircraft, which former Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) had defended. The MQ-9 strike and intelligence drone, which has remained in production over the Air Force’s objections, may also be on the way out.

Biden’s Pentagon transition team landed at the Defense Department in November, led by Kathleen H. Hicks, Biden’s pick for deputy defense secretary. Hicks is a former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, and deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans, and forces, and most recently ran the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If confirmed as expected, she would be the first woman confirmed for the DOD’s second-highest civilian job. 

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst and aerospace expert at CSIS, praised his former colleague. 

“Kath’s appointment as deputy really balances many of the perceived weaknesses in appointing Austin as SECDEF,” Harrison said. For example, her civil-military relations expertise could reassure lawmakers who might be wary of putting another career military officer in charge of the Pentagon.

Other DOD officials in waiting include Colin Kahl for undersecretary of defense for policy and Kelly Magsamen as Pentagon chief of staff, according to the Biden team and news reports.

Kahl was previously Biden’s national security adviser and deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East, and was most recently co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Magsamen held policy positions in the Pentagon DOD focused on the Indo-Pacific theater and has served as vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress.

While Biden’s team won praise for its diversity, he has faced criticism for selecting defense establishment mainstays for Pentagon roles. 

“They’re an incredibly bright group of folks,” Carlisle said. “They’re very, very in-depth in their knowledge base and how they look at things.”

Department of the Air Force officials including Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond had started speaking with the transition team as of early January. But questions such as who might be on the short list for Air Force Secretary and related positions remained an open question. 

With only a slim majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate—tie votes will be decided by Biden’s Vice President Kamala Harris—defense watchers don’t expect drastic swings in military policy. But shifts in aerospace priorities will be influenced by budget pressures.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he expects the defense budget will hover between $720 billion and $740 billion in the coming years—which would be flat, at best, and a cut of up to $20 billion at worst. Any spending overhaul must be justified by a revamped national security policy, he has argued, but he is optimistic that cuts to the nuclear enterprise could pay for new or increased investment in other areas. 

For the Air Force, continued sluggish delivery of F-35 fighters could prompt cuts to that program, but investment in emerging technologies, like hypersonic weapons, appear safe. 

“The most cost-effective means to project combat power are with the aerospace forces of the Department of the Air Force, so the new administration and Congress would be wise to invest accordingly,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies. 

He’s pushing for the department to overhaul its inventory with new technologies that are more capable at lower cost, and for the government to do away with “pass-through” funding that artificially inflates the Air Force’s coffers with money meant for other agencies.

Two priority issues for the defense industry, according to Carlisle, are how DOD will change its strategy in space, particularly how it buys and uses space launches and satellites, as commercial collaboration increases, and how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the defense supply chain. 

An open question is where the new administration’s priorities will lie in terms of technology development. In addition to the high-profile projects like 5G networking and artificial intelligence, Carlisle encouraged the incoming administration to do more to shore up the U.S. domestic microelectronics industry—something the Pentagon did with major investment programs in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Carlisle said he anticipates a fresh look at the National Defense Strategy. “I think it will be tested somewhat under the new administration,” he said. “But … I think everyone in the new administration still sees the strategic threat of China.”

That should bode well for programs at the top of the Air and Space Forces’ priority lists, such as the B-21 bomber and offensive and defensive space capabilities. 

Bipartisan congressional support for the Space Force should ensure the new service isn’t just a Trump-era phenomenon. It’s important for the Biden administration to give it the resources it needs to grow, advocates said. 

“Currently the Space Force is underfunded; undermanned; and does not have the authorities for which it was stood up for to consolidate,” Deptula said. “This will be a big challenge for the Biden administration because if they increase resources for the Space Force while decreasing the overall defense topline, some other service is going to get hit.”

The National Security Space Association (NSSA), a nonprofit founded in 2018 to support the federal space enterprise, published a paper in December urging Biden not to put space on the back burner.

NSSA is pushing the administration to maintain high-level attention to U.S. space policy and strategy, including keeping the National Space Council to discuss those matters. It’s unclear whether the National Space Council, which is chaired by the vice president, will continue under Harris.

The group, advised by a panel of former generals, industry players, NASA officials, and other public- and private-sector experts, wants the administration to “promote the peaceful uses of space,” incentivize public and private space industrial innovation, and follow through with the ongoing overhaul of the military space enterprise.

“In the coming decade, the U.S. will face as great a challenge to its leadership in space as at any time since the launch of Sputnik,” the organization said. “The last 20 years have seen the gap between the U.S. and other nations, especially China, erode dramatically. Unless that trajectory changes, U.S. leadership, and the significant national security and economic benefits that derive from it, may be in jeopardy.”

Unified Democratic control will change the discussion around how the U.S. should approach future authorizations of military force overseas and will introduce a new dynamic between Biden and progressives as he looks to reshape the American troop presence in the Middle East, rather than leave it entirely.

Other high-level policy decisions will reverberate through the services as well.

The Biden administration is expected to quickly roll back restrictions imposed by President Donald J. Trump on transgender troops, for example, and is likely to revoke a September 2020 executive order that bars “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” in diversity training materials, such as “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex,” as might be the case when discussing discriminatory practices or policies. 

“Our industry partners are having a really hard time with it,” Carlisle said. “The way it’s out now, it’s unexecutable.”