Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is traveling to the Middle East and Europe to consult with some of America's closest allies, with an eye toward "revitalizing" America's relationships.
The secretary begins his trip in Israel, moves on to Germany, and then goes to Brussels for meetings with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He'll wrap up his travels in the United Kingdom.
In Israel, Austin will meet with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The secretary is the most senior Biden administration official to visit the country. He is visiting the week Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, followed by Israeli Independence Day.
The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel's independence in 1948, and the American commitment to Israel has never wavered. Austin will reiterate the administration's ironclad commitment to the strategic relationship with Israel and to ensuring Israel's qualitative military edge, said a senior defense official.
Maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge is a long-standing commitment that has crossed multiple administrations. "It is both a testament to the importance of the relationship and also a testament to just how seriously we think about regional security affairs," the official said.
Maintaining the edge is more than just equipment and training. "We consult with them and work with them on [qualitative military edge]," another official said. "It is an iterative, consistent and persistent process."
In every conversation from the secretary of defense all the way down to desk officers with Israeli counterparts, maintaining the edge is a consideration. "It is a consideration on any other military sales that we contemplate with any other partner in the region," the official said. "That's no secret. And, of course, we're also thinking about our own national security interest as we're looking at any and all of these."
Austin and Israeli officials will spend a lot of time talking about regional security, including Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian security. "Iran will obviously be on the agenda; Jordan I expect to be, as well, Palestinian security, in addition," the official said. "But above all, the key will be this is a close relationship. It is one characterized by collaboration, and that's what, what he'll really be talking through."
Iran is a malign influence throughout the Middle East, and Israel is very worried about the nation developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. "Over the years, you have seen this topic be one in which, frankly, we have mutual interest with the Israelis," the official said. "The president has been very clear: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. We will not allow Iran's bad regional behavior to go unnoticed and unchecked, and those sorts of discussions are critical."
After Israel, Austin will travel to Berlin where he will meet with defense and national security officials. He will also visit U.S. troops in Stuttgart, Germany. Austin "will applaud the Germans for all of the progress that they've made on defense spending and encourage them to continue down that path," the official said.
After Germany, the secretary will go to Brussels where he will meet with NATO officials, including Stoltenberg. Austin's first call upon arriving at the Pentagon in January was to the NATO leader. Officials traveling with Austin emphasized the "criticality" of the alliance, saying it is at the heart of America's greatest asymmetric advantage: the network of allies and partners around the world.
Austin wants to ensure that the 30-nation alliance is ready for the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Finally, the secretary will visit London to meet with counterparts there. Austin will applaud the integrated review that the British just put out and look to maintain and strengthen the special relationship.
But the United States is a global power, and Austin still has to maintain contacts around the world. Seven hours into his flight to Israel, Austin spoke with Philippine Minister of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana. The two discussed China's massing of militia vessels at Whitsun Reef. Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said that Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. "The secretary proposed several measures to deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea," he said.