A national security apparatus at risk, turmoil for military families, delayed retirements and military branches struggling to recruit and keep top candidates.
These are just some of a litany of effects stemming from Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on military promotions over his opposition to a Pentagon policy allowing service members leave time and travel expenses to seek abortions.
Tuberville insists his holds are not having a serious impact on the military. But lawmakers, defense officials, military families and retired officers tell a different story.
They say the GOP senator’s blockade on more than 300 nonpolitical promotions, which he has held firm on since late February, is wreaking havoc on the U.S. military and those that comprise it.
Here are five ways the hold is hurting the U.S. military.
Table of Contents
National security strains
With Tuberville’s blockade, many senior Pentagon positions will need to be filled on an acting basis — a transitional role similar to substitute teachers. Such figures can’t hire staff or enact any meaningful changes within the military, only holding the job until a permanent appointee takes their place.
That has anxieties mounting, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley is set to step down once his term is up at the end of the month. His intended replacement, Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, has been caught up in Tuberville’s hold at a time when the Russia-Ukraine war is at a crossroads, tensions are ongoing with North Korea and Iran, and the U.S. is dealing with an increasingly aggressive China.
The Army, Navy and Marine Corps are already operating with acting chiefs of staff, and soon that will include the Air Force. Also being held up is the nominee for the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian role, the undersecretary of defense, and the next heads of the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Navy’s 7th Fleet and 5th Fleet — which oversee the Pacific and Middle East — and the next United States Military Representative to NATO.
That means the big decisions regarding national security can’t necessarily be made because certain “authorities” can “only be exercised by a Senate-confirmed leader,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters Tuesday.
Lawmakers, even those in the GOP, are taking notice of these dangers and speaking out.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) earlier this month warned that the holds are “paralyzing the Department of Defense” and are causing “a national security problem.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has struggled to quell the gaps by convincing at least 25 three- and four-star officers to delay their retirements while they wait for their replacements to be confirmed, Senate Armed Services Committee Democrats wrote in a memo released Tuesday.
The Pentagon this week also pointed to the “incredibly bold steps” leaders are taking to offshoot any issues from the holds, according to deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh.
“Of course the military is going to keep doing its job. But you’re putting an incredible amount of strain on our leadership,” she told reporters. “While we are taking steps to do what we can to mitigate our impacts, it’s having an impact.”
Turmoil for military families
Caught up in the hold are 273 promotions approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee that are now stuck on the floor. The Armed Services panel still must act on another 40 nominations the Defense Department has sent over.
That means more than 300 individuals and military families are stuck in limbo, waiting to receive a raise, move to a new location, enroll their children in new schools or find new jobs for their spouses, all major upheavals that come with a change in position.
Pentagon leaders have long alluded to the harm Tuberville’s hold is causing military families, but this week Senate Democrats released a detailed list of hardships endured.
“Military families bear the costs of the Senator’s hold more than any other group. These affected families have been understandably reluctant to share their experiences, likely due to fear of political retribution,” according to the fact sheet.
Included in the anonymous accounts is a Navy spouse and public school teacher who is now unemployed after she left her job in anticipation of her husband’s overseas assignment. The spouse can’t accept a new contract at the overseas location or recommit to returning to the old school district due to the uncertainty from the hold.
Two affected officers disenrolled their children from their current schools due to an expected change-of-station move but now can’t enroll them in a new school because of the promotion hold.
Another three officers have moved their families at their expense — with no option to be reimbursed — to ensure their children could enroll in a new school, according to the document.
“These examples are but the tip of the iceberg, snapshots and stories of those willing to share. The true impact of the senator’s actions may not be known for years,” the Senate Democrats write.
Not all military families are staying silent on the issue, with nearly 1,000 active-duty military spouses this summer signing a petition that calls on Tuberville to end his blockade.
“No matter your political beliefs, we must agree that service members and military families will not be used as political leverage,” according to the document organized by the Secure Families Initiative, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for military families.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) this week said he was concerned “that the longer this lingers the more it impacts families.”
And on Thursday, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, President Biden’s nominee for the next chief of naval operations, said Tuberville’s hold has created “a lot of uncertainty” for Naval families.
“We ask a lot of our families to move, uproot, find new schools, find new jobs for spouses, and I have heard a lot of concerns from our families that they are having difficulty navigating that space right now,” she told Senate Armed Services Committee lawmakers during her nomination hearing.
Losing top officers
Because the U.S. military is an all-volunteer force, those hit by the holds include top officers who have already reached their 20-year service commitment and could easily retire with full benefits and seek jobs in the private sector.
The Pentagon is aware of the danger of losing such valuable personnel, keeping them on board mainly through promotions to more highly regarded and important roles.
Should those promotions never come — along with the promised pay boost — that means 61 officers could be enticed to go elsewhere, according to Senate Democrats.
They note that 22 officers who have been selected for their first star “are losing about $2,600 per month, through no fault of their own,” while another 20 officers selected for two stars “will lose nearly $2,000 per month until this blockade is removed.”
Tuberville has insisted the officers will receive back pay when they are confirmed, but the Democrats claim this is false.
“There is no back pay mechanism for these officers. Their pay is tied to their rank, which is tied to their appointment to that rank, which cannot occur until the Senate provides its consent,” they write.
Also in limbo are the lives of some individuals the U.S. military pours the most money into for training, such as pilots, who are routinely and aggressively recruited to leave the service to fly for commercial airlines.
“The military cannot compete with the airlines on pay, but it has always competed on opportunity and mission. If career opportunity is compromised, patriotism will only carry one so far, particularly as the Senate’s inaction is costing direct earnings for many of the nominees,” according to the fact sheet.
Tuberville’s holds also come at a particularly inconvenient time for U.S. military recruitment. With the services struggling to meet goals, the lag in numbers is made worse by the avoidable turmoil, according to Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin, Biden’s choice to lead the service next.
“I will tell you that while we don’t have specific hard data, my experience and my personal judgment says that this does hurt recruiting and retention. We hear anecdotal evidence,” Allvin told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his nomination hearing Tuesday.
A day earlier, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed that the military branch would not hit its active-duty recruiting goals this year, something that has not happened since 1999.
The Army and Navy also don’t expect to reach this year’s active-duty goals.
Defense planners say 1.4 million active-duty troops, airmen and sailors are needed to protect the U.S. homeland and American interests overseas.
“What I do think about — and again, without more than anecdotal evidence — is the signal that this may send,” Allvin said of the holds. “And with that signal, understanding that if there’s a perceived disruption or distraction by our force, we want to maintain and retain the strongest and the best in our Air Force.”
Lasting effects on military
At her nomination hearing this week, Franchetti offered a view into the far-reaching negative effects caused by Tuberville’s hold, telling lawmakers it will take the Navy “years to recover from … the promotion delays that we will see going forward.”
But Franchetti’s assertion can be applied across the military, Singh told reporters later Thursday.
“Her comments are absolutely right,” Singh said of the four-star admiral. “As these promotions continue to get delayed, that pushes back other promotions, which is going to cause … our senior-level officers to consider whether they should retire. And you’re going to really see potentially a hollowing out of our military.”
Singh added that the blockade is “incredibly damaging,” and “absolutely has hugely consequential impacts for years to come.”
Just taking into account the 273 nominees currently ensnared in Tuberville’s blockade, it would take the Senate more than 689 hours to confirm all promotions, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) memo released this week.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has so far resisted GOP calls to hold individual votes on top officials, which is possible as Tuberville is only able to block expedited package votes.
Even if Tuberville soon relents, his long hold on confirmations means it will take months for lawmakers to vote through the nominees.
“If the Senate exclusively processed these nominations during eight-hour session days, it would take approximately 89 days to confirm all 273 nominees,” according to the CRS memo.
“Just at the three-star level, it would take about three to four months just to move all the people around,” Franchetti said, referring just to the holds affecting the Navy.
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