Vice Chairman’s Retirement Leaves Hole on Joint Chiefs as Biden Delays Nominee Pick

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Gen. John Hyten testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In this April 11, 2019, file photo, U.S. Strategic Command Commander Gen. John Hyten testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP File Photo)

The office of the second-highest ranking military officer in the U.S. -- Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- is set to be vacant within weeks because the Biden administration hasn't named a replacement.

The coming gap between vice chiefs on Nov. 21, when Hyten retires, is what the Pentagon described this week as "not optimal." Hyten helps lead the Joint Chiefs, the top military planners and advisers, and is also responsible for overarching strategies that unify the military services.

It is a "big job with immense responsibilities," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

By law, nobody can temporarily fill the vice chief position in an acting capacity, unlike so many civilian leadership jobs, and the Pentagon can't farm out all of those job responsibilities to others while it waits for a replacement, according to Kirby.

Instead, Congress must confirm a new vice chief with a hearing and a vote. But President Joe Biden has been slow to name a nominee even amid new and growing geo-political threats such as China's recent test of a hypersonic missile, which Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley called a near Sputnik moment in a Bloomberg interview. 

"I hoped to actually have a conversation with my successor but he has not been nominated yet, so I may be writing that letter," Hyten said Thursday during a meeting with reporters.

Hyten, an Air Force officer and Harvard graduate, has warned that his successor also faces a Defense Department and military services that take far too long to develop new weapons and needed capabilities to fend off global threats, while China and other adversaries leap ahead.

"Right now, it's so frustrating because the answer to every question I get is that, OK, we need the following capability and how long is it going to take, and the answer is 10-15 years," he said.

"Every program you look at, you can see it that way," Hyten added.

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The new intercontinental ballistic missile program, know as the ground-based strategic deterrent, started around 2015 and will not be fully operational until 2035, while the U.S. built 800 ICBMs as well as silos and control systems in five years in the 1960s, he said.

The long development times in the U.S. drag on as China bounds ahead with testing and development, which Hyten credits with Beijing's higher willingness to tolerate initial failures along the path to new military technology.

China tested what appeared to be a hypersonic weapon that orbited the Earth over the summer, though Hyten and the Pentagon have repeatedly declined to provide additional details. Hypersonic weapons travel at least five times the speed of sound and are more difficult to intercept compared to more conventional missiles.

"I think in the last five years, maybe longer, the U.S. has done nine hypersonic tests," Hyten said. "In the same time -- I can't give you the exact number because that would be classified, too -- the Chinese have done hundreds."

Hyten will take deep expertise on the subject with him when he retires. He was head of U.S. Strategic Command from 2016-2019 and responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons, global bombers, and missile threats and defense.

Kirby said Thursday he would not discuss what is causing the holdup in finding a nominee to replace Hyten. The time left before Nov. 21 is almost certainly not enough time to name a replacement and complete the Senate confirmation process, which can typically take months.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will make recommendations to Biden, who will announce his pick "at the right time," Kirby said.

"There will be a nominee, and the confirmation process will proceed," he said.

Under law, the potential pool for a new vice chief is larger compared to the Joint Chiefs chairman. The vice chief must be a general or admiral and have a joint military education and a full tour of duty at a joint command assignment. The chairman must have either served as vice chairman or a service chief.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whose position as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman makes him responsible for shepherding Pentagon nominees through the Senate, said the panel would like to see someone nominated to replace Hyten "quickly."

Once the White House sends the Senate a nominee, Reed said he hoped there would be bipartisan cooperation to move as quickly as possible to confirm the person.

"This is a very important position to national defense and to the protection of our service men and women, so I would hope, first of all, that we would get, I expect, a highly qualified nominee, and then second, that we would move on a bipartisan basis expeditiously to confirm that person," Reed told Military.com on Thursday.

Still, Reed noted that the vice chairman job has been vacant before and expressed confidence  that Milley will be able to make up for any gaps.

The vice chairman position sat vacant for four months in 2019 between Hyten's confirmation and his predecessor's retirement as senators looked into allegations Hyten committed sexual assault. Hyten denied the claims by a female Army officer and was approved by the majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Milley was chairman for part of that four-month period.

"He understands and is prepared," Reed said of Milley managing the Joint Chiefs without a vice chairman, citing recent conversations with the general.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten. 

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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