FILE PHOTO: In this file photo taken on October 17, 2014 Commander of US Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin III conducts a media briefing on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against (IS) Islamic State group, at the Pentagon in Washingon, DC. (Photo: AFP)
President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired General Lloyd Austin to be his defense secretary as soon as Tuesday, a person familiar with the decision said, and will publicly introduce the health team that will lead his administration's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Austin, 67, a former head of US Central Command who oversaw forces in the Middle East under President Barack Obama, will be the first Black US secretary of defense if the US Senate confirms him.
He was a surprise pick over Michele Flournoy, a former top Defense Department official who was considered the leading contender for the job. Flournoy would have been the first woman defense secretary.
Austin, who retired in 2016, needs a waiver from Congress to take the post, as he has been out of the military less than the required seven years. President Donald Trump's first Pentagon chief, retired Marine general James Mattis, also needed a waiver to serve.
Known as a shrewd strategist with deep knowledge of the armed forces, he developed a working relationship with Biden during the Obama administration and has been advising the transition team on national security issues, the person familiar with the decision to name him said.
The nomination could draw fire from some progressive groups given Austin's role in retirement on the board of a number of companies, including weapons maker Raytheon Technologies Corp .
But it will help answer complaints from advocacy groups about the need for more racial diversity in Biden's Cabinet appointments, including complaints from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the number of Latinos and from civil rights groups about the lack of prominent Black nominees.
After Biden introduces the leadership of his new health team on Tuesday he will have a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders who have been pressing him about the need for more Blacks in top administration posts.
Biden has promised the most diverse Cabinet in US history, and he made a point in his victory speech last month of telling Black voters that he would remember them.
The choice of Austin also will resonate among proponents for greater diversity in the leadership of the US armed forces, which is regularly criticized for failing to promote Black servicemembers and whose top tier has been largely white.
Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has been scrambling to put together the nominees who will lead on his top priorities since he defeated Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Biden has already named many of his national security and economic leaders, and his health team will guide the response to his first big challenge - containing a resurgent COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 283,000 Americans, and finding ways to jump-start an economy reeling from pandemic-fueled job losses.
Biden will introduce California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Latino former congressman, for secretary of health and human services and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, to run the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was named as Biden's chief medical adviser on the virus.
Biden picked Jeff Zients, an economic adviser known for his managerial skills, as coronavirus "czar" to oversee a response that will include an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.
Biden's choice of Becerra, 62, a Latino former congressman, adds a politician to a health effort that otherwise largely relies on government administrators and health experts.
But Becerra also has a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. He played a key role in passing the landmark law during his time in Congress, and in his current California role leads the coalition of 20 states defending the program, including in a case before the Supreme Court last month.
A person familiar with Biden's choice of Austin for the Pentagon said his experience with difficult logistical challenges such as leading the transition of US and Coalition forces out of Iraq could help the Pentagon as it plays a huge role in the vaccine rollout.