Future Officer Promotions Could Also Be Delayed by Senate Standoff, Austin Warns

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee budget hearing, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee budget hearing, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., March 28, 2023. (Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department photo)

Delaying Senate confirmation of generals and admirals awaiting promotions right now will ripple down into future rounds of promotions, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned in a recent letter to Congress.

The letter escalates warnings Austin and Democrats have been delivering in recent months admonishing Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., for placing a hold on senior officer promotions over his objections to the Pentagon covering travel and leave for troops seeking abortions. As of now, 196 promotions are caught in Tuberville's hold.

In the latest missive, Austin argued that, because general and flag officer numbers are "tightly controlled" by law and because one group of officers can be promoted only with the retirement of another group, future promotions could be delayed by a year to two years because of the current standoff.

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"Long-term holds have a corrosive and cascading effect: They prevent our rising officers and their families from being able to predict promotion and rotation windows, which can increase the pressure to leave the military in favor of greater stability," Austin wrote in the letter, which was dated Friday. "The more normal promotion processes are jolted, the more we risk the loss of the diverse warfighting and technical expertise that America needs to confront its 21st century security challenges."

Austin has previously warned that Tuberville's hold hurts military families by preventing them from preparing for moves and leaves key military positions in doubt at a time of global instability, arguments he echoed and elaborated on in the letter.

His latest warning came in response to a letter Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent him last month asking for a "full accounting" of the effects of Tuberville's holds. Senate Democrats have been gradually ratcheting up pressure on Tuberville as the standoff nears its fourth month.

Tuberville announced in February he was placing a hold on Senate confirmations of all promotions to one-star general and admiral and above after the Pentagon unveiled a policy to pay for travel and leave for troops getting abortions or fertility treatments.

A hold does not prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, but it requires the chamber to take individual roll call votes on each nominee rather than confirming them in a batch by voice vote as it usually does for military officers. The nearly 200 nominations on hold would take months to approve with roll call votes.

Tuberville's office did not respond to a request for comment from Military.com on Austin's letter, but he has previously rejected arguments that his hold hurts the military or national security.

"I will respond to the senator's letter right now: My hold has no effect on readiness. None," Tuberville said during a faceoff with Warren on the Senate floor last month, referencing the letter she sent Austin.

But in Austin's response to Warren's letter, he wrote that Tuberville's actions "pose a clear threat to U.S. military readiness."

"The ripple effects of this unprecedented and unnecessary hold are increasingly troubling," Austin wrote. "Ultimately, the breakdown of the normal flow of leadership across the department's carefully cultivated promotion and transition system will breed uncertainty and confusion across the U.S. military."

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

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