Adm. Bill Moran's decision to retire just weeks before becoming the Navy's next top officer will leave the service without one of its top strategic thinkers, analysts say, as officials scramble to name his replacement.
Moran, who was confirmed to be the next chief of naval operations, had months to prepare his vision to lead the Navy. His abrupt retirement announcement followed concerns about his close contact with retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Servello, former spokesman for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. Servello was accused of sexually harassing women at a Pentagon Christmas party.
The matter was the subject of a months-long criminal investigation. No charges were filed against Servello.
"I completely understand the sensitivity of future CNO having a somewhat professional relationship with a disgraced former naval officer with significant sexual harassment allegations," said Thomas Callender, a retired submarine officer and defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "It would not look good for the new CNO to have the appearance of even implicitly condoning his behavior by maintaining a professional relationship."
But those next in line, while qualified, will lack the experience Moran would've brought to the position, Callender added. While serving as the Navy's No. 2 officer, Moran gained a strong mix of strategic and budgetary experience that would have served him well as CNO.
"I think losing Adm. Moran ... will be a significant loss for the Navy," Callender said.
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Bryan McGrath, a retired surface officer and naval consultant, agrees. Moran's background in building programs and budgets, combined with his maritime patrol experience, would've served the Navy well amid growing risks from near-peer competitors such as China and Russia.
"[That] puts him in a unique position to understand the dramatic gaps in the Navy's intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting architecture," McGrath said. "This is a huge loss to the Navy and the country, one that puts an incredible burden on those who removed him from consideration to justify."
All three- and four-star admirals are eligible to be recommended to serve as CNO, said Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer.
"The Secretary of the Navy will make his recommendation based on who is the best and most fully qualified officer for the position," she said. "[Secretary Spencer] is committed to quickly recommending a new CNO for nomination, and he will move to that decision urgently but deliberately."
Spencer is weighing the possibility of bypassing all the current four-star candidates and elevating a three-star admiral to the Navy's top uniformed position, Defense News reported Tuesday.
Richardson can remain in the position until mid-September, when he hits the four-year mark for his tenure as CNO. Keeping him on past that point requires congressional approval, said a Navy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Typically, though, a vice CNO can fill the position if there's an absence, the official added. Adm. Bob Burke became the Navy's vice CNO in June.
"I think there are many avenues here in the future," the official said, when asked about plans to cover the position past September.
The Navy's Next Options
There are three paths Spencer, the defense secretary and President Donald Trump can follow in choosing a new CNO. They can pull from the small group of active-duty four-stars; recall a recently retired admiral; or choose someone from the three-star ranks, said Jerry Hendrix, a defense analyst and retired Navy captain.
Hendrix and Callender both named three likely candidates: Adm. John "Lung" Aquilino, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet; Adm. Christopher Grady, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command; or Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. Navy Forces Europe and Africa.
Each is well-qualified by resume and experience, Hendrix said, and represent a "stay-the-course" approach.
Aquilino and Grady both have significant leadership experience in the Middle East and Pacific, Callender added, which might give them an edge over Foggo, a submarine officer. Since Burke is a submariner, it's unlikely the Navy's No. 1 and 2 positions would be filled by leaders from the same community. Richardson also comes from the submarine community.
If the president made the unusual decision to recall a former leader, as when Gen. Peter Schoomaker came out of retirement in 2003 to serve as Army chief of staff, Hendrix said Harry Harris, currently the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, would make a strong pick. Harris, who led U.S. Pacific Command, retired as an admiral last year.
His age could pose a problem though, Hendrix said. Harris is 62, which is the maximum age to serve as CNO without a congressional waiver.
The commander in chief can also look to lower-ranking flag officers, as President Dwight Eisenhower did when he chose Arleigh Burke to be CNO over dozens of more-senior admirals -- someone "new and fresh," Hendrix said.
There are several officers with reputations for taking fresh looks at the Navy's problems, he added. They include Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, who commanded 10th Fleet and Navy Cyber Command; Vice Adm. William Lescher, who served in the helicopter and amphibious communities; and Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, head of 6th Fleet.
Gilday is among the top contenders for the job, according to Defense News.
Any service chief candidate is now likely to face new scrutiny in their relationships and email correspondence as a result of Moran's predicament, Callender said. But each expert agrees that Moran will long be seen among sailors as an outstanding naval leader.
"Bill Moran is a superior leader whose reputation for good judgment is well established and will endure, despite the allegations made against him," Hendrix said.