Three US military services without Senate-confirmed chiefs for first time in history

Aug 14, 2023, 2:34 PM

The wall at the Pentagon featuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three of the positions are vacant due...

The wall at the Pentagon featuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three of the positions are vacant due to GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville's hold on Senate-confirmed officers. (Haley Britzkey/CNN)

(Haley Britzkey/CNN)

(CNN) — Another US military service chief has relinquished command without a Senate-confirmed replacement in place, marking the first time in the Defense Department’s history that three services are operating without a confirmed senior military officer in place.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday relinquished command on Monday. His nominated replacement, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, is one of more than 300 military officers whose promotions are being stalled by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, in protest of Pentagon reproductive health policies.

Franchetti will serve as the acting Chief of Naval Operations in the absence of her Senate confirmation.

Gilday’s relinquishment follows the retirement and relinquishment of command by former Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville on August 4, and former Marine Corps Commandant David Berger last month.

“Because of this blanket hold, starting today, for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday at Gilday’s relinquishment ceremony. “This is unprecedented. It is unnecessary. And it is unsafe.”

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro echoed Austin’s sentiment, saying it is “well past time” for the Senate to address the outstanding nominations.

“Not doing so will continue to degrade our readiness and will even put the very lives – yes, the very lives of our servicemen and women, your young men and women – at risk by not allowing our most experienced warfighters to lead,” Del Toro said. “The American people deserve to have their best military leaders in place, and in our Department of the Navy that includes a confirmed Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps.”

Steven Stafford, Tuberville’s spokesman, said Monday that Austin’s comments that the hold is unprecedented, unnecessary, and unsafe are wrong.

“The only thing ‘unprecedented’ about Coach’s hold is the length of time that it has gone on,” Stafford said, pointing to threats to hold nominations from Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

“[T]hey got what they wanted, and quickly,” Stafford said of Duckworth and Bennet.

Franchetti, who has been serving as the vice chief of naval operations, would be the first woman in the CNO seat, and the first woman on the joint chiefs of staff. She has previously served as the commander of US Naval Forces Korea, deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Development, director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy of the Joint Staff, and commanded two carrier strike groups.

During Monday’s ceremony, Gilday said that Franchetti is a “warfighter with combat experience” and “operational leader” who has made the Navy better.

“She’s a strategist, she’s an innovator, she’s a team builder, she’s a trailblazer, she’s an example of personal and professional resilience and a testament to the power of American dream to inspire service and sacrifice,” Gilday said. “I can’t wait to see what is next for her as she’s leading our Navy … I will be proud to call her my CNO.”

Pentagon officials, including Austin, have repeatedly warned of the consequences of Tuberville’s ongoing hold, saying it would impact national security by not allowing the right leaders to take their positions at the right time.

In a memo to the force earlier this month, Austin said that lower-ranking officers may be assigned to lead organizations in the absence of Senate-confirmed commanders, and that three- and four-star officers would not be able to leave their current roles.

“I understand that these steps will not end or offset the risk to our readiness or our global leadership position,” Austin wrote. “Nor will they resolve the uncertainty and stress inflicted upon our general and flag officers and their families, or alleviate the worries rippling further down our ranks.”

Tuberville has not budged on his position, saying that the Pentagon is violating law with the reproductive health policies that include, among other things, a travel allowance for troops and their families who must travel to receive an abortion because of the state laws where they are stationed. Pentagon officials have pointed to a Justice Department memo that says the policies are lawful.

Tuberville has said that all of the positions awaiting Senate-confirmed leaders “are being done. My holds are NOT affecting national security.” He also said last month he “didn’t start” the fight and is “trying to get politics out of the military.”

Stafford, Tuberville’s spokesman, said Monday that the Alabama senator “is not blocking votes – he’s forcing votes,” putting the responsibility on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to vote individually on nominations.

“Contrary to false reporting, no jobs are going unfilled while the hold is in place. Instead, highly experienced acting officials are serving in these roles,” Stafford said.

Indeed, many of the positions awaiting confirmation are being filled on an acting basis. In some cases, however, the officer filling the role on a temporary basis is lower-ranking than the officer who was nominated to take the position. The Missile Defense Agency, for example, is being led by a one-star in an acting capacity despite the position typically being filled by a three-star general.

By the end of this year, there will be more than 600 military officers up for nomination – and thus far, there is no end in sight to Tuberville’s hold. That hold includes the nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, who is expected to take over for Army Gen. Mark Milley.

“Our troops deserve better,” Austin said Monday. “Our military families deserve better. Our allies and partners deserve better. And our national security deserves better.”

This article has been updated with additional comments.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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Three US military services without Senate-confirmed chiefs for first time in history