The US chief of naval operations stepped down Monday, leaving an unprecedented three branches of the country’s military without confirmed leaders due to a standoff with a single senator over Pentagon abortion policy.
Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican, is stalling the approval of more than 300 US military nominees to protest Defense Department efforts to assist troops who must travel to receive reproductive health care that is unavailable where they are stationed.
The officers selected to head the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps are among the nominees Tuberville is keeping from being quickly approved by the Senate via unanimous consent.
Lawmakers can still vote on nominations individually, but that much more time-consuming process has not been used so far.
“Because of this blanket hold, starting today, for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a ceremony marking Admiral Mike Gilday‘s departure from office.
“This is unprecedented. It is unnecessary. And it is unsafe,” Austin said.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, speaking at the same ceremony, called on the Senate to take action on the stalled nominations.
“Not doing so will continue to degrade our readiness and will even put the very lives… of our service men and women — your young men and women — at risk by not allowing our most experienced warfighters to lead.”
One Officer, Two Jobs
Admiral Lisa Franchetti, who is currently vice chief of naval operations and has been nominated to lead the service, will perform the top job in an acting capacity in addition to her current position.
The US Supreme Court in June 2022 struck down the nationwide right to abortion, meaning troops stationed in places that restricted or banned the procedure must now take leave and travel to areas where it is legal to obtain one.
Austin responded by directing the Defense Department to develop policies allowing service members to take administrative absences to receive “non-covered reproductive health care,” and establishing travel allowances to help them cover costs.
Tuberville, whose home state of Alabama has instituted a near-total ban on abortions, insists those efforts are illegal and has vowed to delay the approval of senior officers as well Defense Department civilian officials until they are reversed.
The US Marine Corps commandant stepped down on July 10, and the general nominated to replace him has been performing two jobs — vice commandant and head of the service — for more than a month.
The chief of staff of the Army left office on August 4, and his deputy has since then been in the same situation as his counterpart in the Marine Corps.
The problem is set to worsen further with the upcoming departure of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, the president’s top military advisor.
If Tuberville’s hold is still in effect, it will mean four out of the eight positions on the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be filled by of