'Unprecedented' Promotion Hold Leads to 3rd Service Without a Confirmed Chief

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday delivers remarks during a relinquishment of office ceremony at the United States Naval Academy.
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday delivers remarks during a relinquishment of office ceremony at the United States Naval Academy, Aug. 14, 2023. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy photo)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Standing under a battle flag emblazoned with the words "Don't Give Up the Ship," Adm. Mike Gilday, the Navy's outgoing uniformed leader, turned to Adm. Lisa Franchetti on Monday morning and said that he "will be proud to call her my CNO."

The moment should have been a joyous and historic one. Franchetti was nominated by President Joe Biden on July 21 to take over for Gilday as the chief of naval operations, or CNO. She was set to become the first female officer to lead the Navy and to join the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

However, she did not take over the job Monday because of a political move that has unnerved military leaders so much that every speaker at the relinquishment ceremony addressed it in some way -- most quite directly. The move in question is a hold on Senate confirmations of admiral and general promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.

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As a result, at the end of the ceremony, held inside a marbled hall at the Naval Academy dedicated to fallen graduates of the institution that has produced Navy officers like Gilday for more than 100 years, Franchetti -- who is currently the vice chief of naval operations -- took over the Navy in only an acting capacity.

The Navy now joins the Army and the Marine Corps in being without a Senate-confirmed leader. The upcoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is also affected. While the immediate impacts of the ongoing retirements seem minor and ceremonial -- empty picture frames in the halls of the Pentagon and use of words like relinquishment rather than change of command -- military leaders say the lack of confirmed military leaders will be dire.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Tuberville's move "unprecedented," before adding that "it is unnecessary and it is unsafe."

"This sweeping hold is undermining America's military readiness," he added, using some of the harshest language on the topic to date.

The hold that Tuberville has placed over all top promotions and appointments does actually not prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, but it does mean that the chamber would need to hold roll call votes on each nominee individually -- something that would take months under the Senate's infamously slow pace.

Usually, the Senate confirms military nominees in batches with voice votes.

Tuberville began the hold in February to protest the Pentagon's new travel and leave policy for reproductive health care.

Pentagon officials have said the policy -- which allows service members to take time off and receive travel funds to get a variety of reproductive procedures, including abortions -- is about ensuring everyone has access to equal health care.

"Service members don't have the right to choose which state they get deployed to or stationed in, and so this policy is intended to ensure that there's equitable treatment of all service members," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Aug. 1.

The march toward what Austin called a "painful milestone" of Gilday's retirement and the record number of vacancies began June 23, when Marine Corps leader Gen. David Berger retired, replaced with an acting commandant.

Then came the Army, when Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville retired in early August.

The Navy's top civilian official, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, said Tuberville's hold "puts the very lives … of servicemen and women … at risk by not allowing our most experienced warfighters to lead."

"Our troops deserve better," Austin said, before adding that "our military families deserve better, our allies and partners deserve better, and our national security deserves better."

Tuberville's spokesman, Steven Stafford, pushed back in a statement sent out shortly after the Navy's ceremony on Monday concluded, noting eight instances between 1992 and 2023 when other lawmakers used or threatened to use a promotion hold to influence the Pentagon.

The reasons ranged from protesting base closures to dealing with the fallout of the Navy's massive sexual assault scandal commonly known as "Tailhook." Some were also far smaller in scope than what Tuberville has done. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., had a hold over the location of U.S. Space Command's headquarters that threatened only six civilian nominees, for example.

However, Stafford did acknowledge that what makes Tuberville's move "unprecedented … is the length of time that it has gone on."

The timing of Franchetti's nomination by the White House -- a week before the Senate started its August recess -- would have also made it hard to confirm her in time for Gilday's retirement even without the hold.

As a result of the hold, near the end of the ceremony, Franchetti didn't read a set of orders that instructed her to lead the Navy. Instead, she read a designation letter.

"As provided in Title 10 of US Code 8035, when there is a vacancy in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the vice chief of naval operations shall perform the duties of the CNO until its successor is appointed," Franchetti told the crowd.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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