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Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing

The Hill logo The Hill 6/10/2021 Rebecca Kheel
a person wearing a suit and tie: Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing © Greg Nash Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday in their first hearing since the fiscal year 2022 budget request was released.

(It's the pair's second budget hearing this year, but the first happened before the budget was actually released.)

As with most hearings with the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman, the topics ran the gamut.

Here are some of the highlights:

On sexual assault: Milley reiterated his openness to removing sexual assault prosecutions from the chain-of-command, but stopped short of endorsing a more sweeping reform pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

"The bright line of all felonies, for example, I think that requires some detailed study before we completely overhaul the entire [Uniform Code of Military Justice], but the focused area of sexual assault and sexual harassment, I'm completely open minded to some very significant changes, and I think that's also true of most of the senior leaders in uniform," Milley said.

An independent commission established by Austin has recommended removing sexual crime prosecutions from the chain of command, but Gillibrand wants to go further and remove commanders from prosecutorial decisions on all serious crimes.

Austin has been more tight-lipped about his stance as he reviews the commission's recommendations, but did stress Thursday he thinks any changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) should be "scoped to the problem."

"As I've said before, what we are doing is not working and we need to fix it," Austin said. "And I want to be sure that whatever changes we make to the UCMJ, or whatever changes to the UCMJ that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem that we are trying to solve and have a clear way forward on implementation and ultimately restore the confidence of the force and the system."

On Afghanistan: Austin told senators the U.S. military has already started conducting so-called over-the-horizon operations as it withdraws from Afghanistan.

He declined to confirm a report in The New York Times that the military is considering continuing to provide air support to Afghan forces if Kabul or another major city starts to fall to the Taliban after U.S. troops leave.

But he said that capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) have already started to be flown into Afghanistan from outside the country during the withdrawal.

"In terms of our efforts to establish over-the-horizon capability, I would just point to the fact that, as we have retrograded a lot of our capability out of country, we are doing a lot of things over-the-horizon now," Austin said. "ISR is being flown from [Gulf countries]. A lot of our combat aircraft missions are being conducted from platforms in the Gulf. And so we have the capability now to do that."

On diversity and inclusion: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Austin tangled over the Pentagon's efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion in the military.

Cotton repeatedly cut off Austin, the nation's first Black Defense secretary, as the Pentagon leader sought to provide context on racial issues in the armed forces during the hearing.

Cotton asked Austin to answer yes or no to several questions that Austin insisted required more elaborate answers.

For example, Cotton asked Austin for a yes-or-no answer on whether he believes the military is a "fundamentally racist organization."

"I won't give you a yes-or-no answer on that, senator, because it deserves more than a yes or no," Austin said. "The military, like any organization, will have its challenges, but I do not believe it is a fundamentally racist organization."

Cotton then cut Austin off, saying "our time is limited," and proceeded to ask other similar yes-or-no questions.

On climate change: Milley was also asked several times by Republican senators to answer for President Biden's remarks Wednesday that the Joint Chiefs once told him when he was vice president that the greatest threat facing America is climate change.

"Climate change is a threat. Climate change has significant impact on military operations, and we have to take it into consideration," Milley said in one exchange. "Climate change is going to impact natural resources, for example. It's going to impact increased instability in various parts of the world. It's going to impact migrations and so on. And in addition to that, we have infrastructure challenges here at home, witness some of our hurricanes and stuff.

"But the president is looking at it at a much broader angle than I am. I'm looking at it from a strictly military standpoint. And from a strictly military standpoint, I'm putting China, Russia up there. That is not, however, in conflict with the acknowledgement that climate change or infrastructure or education systems - national security has a broad angle to it. I'm looking at it from a strictly military standard," he added.

On the budget: Austin and Milley defended the $715 billion Pentagon budget request that Republicans have sought to cast as insufficient to face threats posed by China.

"This budget stays true to our focus on matching the pacing challenge that we clearly see from the People's Republic of China," Austin said in his opening statement.

Milley, meanwhile, said that "China is increasing its military capability at a very serious and sustained rate, and we must ensure that we retain our competitive and technological edge against this pacing threat, as Secretary Austin has directed."

Austin, though, appeared to acknowledge the department's request for a counter-China fund known as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative missed the mark. The department requested $5.1 billion for the fund -- more money than had been sought by Indo-Pacific Command (Indo-Pacom) -- but the funding includes some big-ticket procurement items such as F-35s rather than some of the priorities Indo-Pacom's commander laid out such as more money for a missile defense system on Guam.

"My staff is currently working with the committee to clarify and adjust any perceived misalignments," Austin said about the fund. "A great deal of the department's budget is invested in capabilities and activities that concentrate on deterring China. And I would further say that I'm committed to working with the committee to making sure that we get it right and answer the needs of the commander."

On nukes: Republicans also fumed at the hearing about a memo from the acting Navy secretary that recommends defunding the new sea-launched cruise missile in 2023.

Both Austin and Milley said they hadn't seen the memo yet. But Austin downplayed its significance, calling it "predecisional" since the Biden administration has not conducted its nuclear posture review yet.

"We will be true to our posture review and make sure that that drives the process," Austin said.

On Iran: Austin said he's "concerned" about the two Iranian ships that are crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

While it is unclear where the two vessels are headed, Austin expressed worry that they could be transporting weapons, potentially to Venezuela, which has had an acrimonious relationship with the U.S. for years.

"The precedent of allowing Iran to provide weapons to the region causes me great concern," Austin said.

"I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood," he added.

IN OTHER NEWS ... AIR FORCE NOMINEE ADVANCES

The Senate Armed Services Committee took a quick moment at the beginning of the Austin and Milley hearing to approve seven nominations, including Frank Kendall's nomination to be Air Force secretary.

The voice vote sent the nominees to the full Senate for approval.

Kendall previously served in the Pentagon as its top weapons buyer during the Obama administration.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the defense intelligence enterprise with testimony from defense officials at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/2Sh974J

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on LGBT rights in Europe and Eurasia with testimony from outside experts at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/3zgmyCp

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-- The Hill: Opinion: Military justice reform, 'pink courts,' and unit cohesion

-- Washington Post: Kim Jong Un appears to have lost some weight - and that could have geopolitical consequences

-- Reuters: NATO needs to know who its enemies are, says Macron

-- Military Times: Top VA health official stepping down next month

-- Associated Press: As Iran prepares to vote, its battered economy a major worry

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