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The Pentagon is finally releasing details about Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s multi-day hospitalization related to prostate cancer. However, the incident has left me wondering: what did China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin learn from this embarrassing fumble? 

“The event reflected a disorderly US government,” cackled China’s state-run mouthpiece Global Times on Jan. 8. 

Sadly, Austin’s image came down a peg. Not because of any medical procedures, we all wish him a full recovery from prostate cancer, but because he’s not running a tight ship. 

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN DIAGNOSED WITH PROSTATE CANCER

Austin was a natural choice for Secretary of Defense because Biden’s team knew him well when he was the commander of U.S. Central Command. He’s been a huge success at keeping together the 50 nations who support Ukraine and he’s also been deeply engaged with Israel. 

But this slip was costly for the USA. 

First, Xi and Putin will be wondering if American nuclear command and control was ever compromised. The standard procedure is to swap in a replacement for the Secretary of Defense in the chain of command if the SecDef is briefly unavailable. You can understand why the Joint Staff and the Pentagon don’t like to go into details. 

But secondly, the basics are simple. President Joe Biden can access military command and control at all times. That’s why he flies on Air Force One. The president, Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commanders travel often. If they have to launch nuclear weapons, they convene a threat conference – like a phone call – to execute the orders. Honestly, they can do it from anywhere, which is why they have military aides with super-secret cell phones and other gear. 

Anywhere, except the back of an ambulance or the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) if one key leader is in severe pain. 

WHITE HOUSE LAUNCHING REVIEW OF CABINET PROTOCOLS AFTER DEFENSE SECRETARY’S SECRET HOSPITALIZATION: MEMO

Officials in the military chain of command and control don’t get the same medical privacy rights as ordinary people. Especially when their duties include nuclear weapons. Rank and file military members who serve on nuclear-armed submarines, sit alert for the ICBMs, or man the bomber force are already in very strict programs where their conduct and medical status is monitored. Captains of nuclear submarines can’t go off and have mystery medical emergencies. They have to make plans, and hand over command.

Even if nuclear command and control remained intact during Austin’s secret hospitalization, Xi and Putin saw that U.S. national security decision-making can choke. According to the Global Times, “due to the suddenness, fast pace, and high intensity of modern warfare, the efficiency of command and control directly affects the operation of war.” Wordy, but accurate.

This is a crucial tactical indicator for Xi Jinping, who will look to blindside Biden if he tries a military move against Taiwan this year. It took a week to figure out how to handle Austin’s medical emergency. The Pentagon won’t have a week if China goes hostile against Taiwan.

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Third, Austin’s team is not proactive. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who has watched American foreign policy over the last 2 ½ years. What I mean is, they have no instinct for looking down the football field and reading the defense. They aren’t trying to stay one step ahead of China, Russia, or anybody else. 

How easy it would have been to release a statement before Christmas saying that Secretary Austin would be on medical leave for several days over the holidays while another official assumed his duties. America can’t afford to be so clumsy when China is racing to topple us as a global superpower.

Let me just add, it still looks like Team Biden prefers to hide its national security business from the American people. Remember the giant Chinese spy balloon? Recently, it was revealed that Pentagon officials had discussed the balloon for almost a week before it became news. And they delayed further before an F-22 fighter plane from Virginia finally shot it down off the North Carolina coast on Feb. 4, 2023. 

Most of Biden’s national security team was chosen for their longstanding connections to Biden dating back to his vice presidency (Austin) and time in the Senate (Blinken.) They came into office hoping to put military issues on the back burner and let diplomacy step forward. Then came Afghanistan, Ukraine, Taiwan, Gaza and the Red Sea. Despite all these overlapping crises, the Pentagon cannot handle a simple, temporary transfer of authority. 

Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said this week, “This lack of disclosure must never happen again.” 

I wholeheartedly agree.

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