NAPLES, Italy -- The Navy's highest-ranking female officer has been tapped to command naval forces in Europe and Africa.
Adm. Michelle Howard was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, the Naples-based command that oversees the warships, aircraft and sailors operating across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Defense Department announced Thursday.
If approved by Congress, the nomination would mark another milestone in Howard's trailblazing career. She became the highest-ranking female officer in Navy history in 2014 after pinning her fourth star to become vice chief of naval operations. Howard was the first black female officer to command a ship, the amphibious warship USS Rushmore, in 1999.
A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Howard has worked across the Navy's surface fleet. She has commanded an amphibious squadron and an expeditionary strike group, and in 2009 she led the multinational anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden known as Combined Task Force 151.
As vice chief of naval operations, Howard is the second-highest-ranking officer in the Navy and one of its chief advocates for new policies and priorities. A focus of her tenure has been improving the representation of women across the service.
Howard would succeed Adm. Mark Ferguson in Naples, who is retiring. She would also assume command of one of NATO's operational headquarters, Joint Forces Command Naples, based in Lago Patria, just north of Naples.
The Navy faces growing challenges across Europe, with heightened Russian naval patrols, a civil war in Syria that continues to unsettle the region and the spread of militant groups in North Africa.