WASHINGTON – In the months since a single senator froze military promotions over the Pentagon’s abortion policy, the uniformed officers affected have been largely silent, wary of stepping into a political fray. But as the ramifications of Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s freeze have grown, more of them are speaking out.
This week, some of the military’s most senior leaders took the issue head on and voiced their concerns. They said the damage the holds will do to the military will be felt for years, as young talented officers decide they’ve had enough and choose to get out.
“We’re on the fringe of losing a generation of champions,” Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, the head Air Combat Command, told reporters this week at a defense conference in Maryland. Kelly said he’s talking to his junior officers, many with families, and they are “people who will take a bullet for the nation, the Constitution.” But when it comes to dragging their family through this, “there’s a red line.”
One of the unusual things about Tuberville’s holds is he’s punishing uniformed personnel who had nothing to do with creating the administration policy he’s against.
Uniformed military leaders typically avoid commenting on political decisions, not only because they don’t want to antagonize lawmakers who can block their future military promotions, but also because they don’t want to be seen as challenging civilian control of the military, a core tenet of U.S. government.
But now even the Pentagon’s soon-to-be highest military leader is speaking out. Navy Adm. Christopher Grady, who currently serves as the military’s No. 2 officer as Joint Chiefs vice chairman, will simultaneously have to fill in as chairman starting Oct. 1 with the retirement of Gen. Mark Milley if his replacement, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, can’t get confirmed in the next two weeks. Brown is also subject to Tuberville’s hold.
“We need C.Q. Brown to be confirmed as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Grady said Wednesday at the Air and Space Forces Association conference.
For younger officers who are stuck in limbo by the holds, “the fact that folks can’t plan for their moves or get their kids in school” is what is hurting them, Grady said. “There is a cumulative cost to this and we need to be very attuned to that.”
In the last few years, there’s been a slew of political orders that have had a direct impact on the military. There was former President Donald Trump’s order that transgender personnel could not serve, and then the restoration of that service under the Biden administration, the mandate for COVID-19 vaccines and now the response to new state laws restricting access to abortion.
“Some of the orders that are given by civilians to the military, that the military then has to carry out, can make the military seem political,” said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “If whatever the civilian control has asked them to do, if that order, that rule that they’re following is against what you believe, then you’re going to say they’re political.”
Tuberville announced the holds late last year after the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs that abortion limits should be left to the states, and the Biden administration's civilian Pentagon head, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, responded by instituting a policy that Tuberville says violates federal law.
Under the policy, service members, who often do not get a say in where they are assigned, are reimbursed for travel costs incurred for seeking an abortion or other reproductive care if they are serving in a state that has outlawed those services.
Tuberville says the policy violates a federal law that says Defense Department funds may not be used for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is threatened.
So in March, Tuberville exercised a privilege that allows any single senator to place a hold on a nomination, except he put a blanket hold on all military general officer nominations and said he would not lift it until the policy is rescinded.
Putting the hold on service members rather than on civilian nominees has a larger impact because civilian posts often go unfilled for months and a career civilian fills in, said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
It's not the first time general officer promotions have been frozen by a single senator. In July 2020, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois put a blanket hold on military promotions in response to reports that Trump was interfering with the promotion of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was a witness in the former president's impeachment inquiry. Duckworth dropped the hold two weeks later after learning Vindman had been selected for promotion. Vindman, however, retired, citing a “campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation" after multiple delays to his promotion convinced him there was not a viable future for him in the military.
Six months into Tuberville's hold, 315 military officers are now affected, and the impact cuts deeper in some services. In the small and still growing U.S. Space Force, at least eight general officers’ nominations are on hold — but that’s one third of all of its 25 senior officers. In the Marine Corps, at least 18 general officers among the Corps cadre of 88 can’t move to their new commands, or are being stretched too thin by having to cover the duties of their current job while also being responsible for the vacancy they cannot officially fill.
“It’s disruptive,” said Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of Space Force operations. “The people that we want in the jobs, that we know they’re going to be value-added in, we’re not in a position to put them there.”
However the head of Army forces in the Pacific, Gen. Charles Flynn, told reporters this week the holds were not affecting his operations. “I don’t see any practical challenges that it’s creating in the region," Flynn said, according to a transcript provided by the Army.
Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said while military officers are concerned about the holds and their use as a “political cudgel," it is inappropriate for them to speak out.
“It’s not just the president who provides civilian control of the military; constitutionally, Congress also serves that function. We wouldn’t want our military criticizing the president’s partisan political acts, so we shouldn’t want them doing it about Congress, either,” Schake said.
On Thursday, Tuberville watched as another officer, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, who would become the first female chief of naval operations, testified about the impact of the holds during her confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Franchetti said if the holds are lifted, it will take three to four months to get the three-star general officers in place, but it will take years to recover from the impact the promotion delays are having on lower-level officers.
That's because as each officer is promoted, it creates an opportunity for a more junior officer to rise. The military is capped at the numbers of personnel it can have at each rank, so keeping a colonel from being promoted to a general means there are younger lieutenant colonels who can't get promoted to colonel. That affects pay, retirement, lifestyle and future assignments — and in some fields where the private sector will pay more, it becomes harder to convince those highly trained young leaders to stay.
And at one point when asked why she hadn’t been briefed on a specific submarine funding study, Franchetti noted the job strains the holds are creating, since she is doing the job both of vice chief of naval operations and acting chief of the service.
“I think it’s just my own bandwidth capacity right now,” she said.
Tuberville made no mention of the vote delays, instead saying he looked forward to Franchetti’s service as chief. And he told her to keep the military out of politics and “leave it to us politicians.”
Kelly, a career fighter pilot whose retirement has deferred because of the holds, had sharp words about their impact.
“The situation is not instilling confidence in our allies, and it is instilling confidence in our adversaries,” Kelly said. In the nation’s capital, “that popping sound you hear is not stray gunfire. It’s champagne corks in the Chinese Embassy bouncing off the walls.”
Lita C. Baldor contributed from Washington.