Readiness at risk because of stalled promotions, defense secretary says
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said a Republican senator’s delay of the quick approval of nearly 200 military promotions poses a “clear risk” to the nation’s military readiness and directly affects the lives of service members’ families.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) in March promised to delay the approval of these promotions over his objection to the Defense Department’s abortion policy. His decision, Austin warned in a letter last week to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), “harms America’s national security and hinders the Pentagon’s normal operations.”
“The United States military relies on the deep experience and strategic expertise of our senior military leaders,” Austin wrote. “The longer that this hold persists, the greater the risk the U.S. military runs in every theater, every domain, and every Service.”
Austin has urged the Senate to move ahead with the promotions, telling members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the blockade on military promotions caused a “ripple effect in the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”
His letter to Warren comes in response to a request by the senator, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel, to outline how Tuberville’s hold is directly affecting national security.
The hold, he said, can lead to feelings of uncertainty among military families because it prevents rising officers from being able to “predict promotion and rotation windows.” This, he warned, can increase “the pressure to leave the military in favor of greater stability.”
Military children are unable to move to new schools until the promotions are confirmed, Austin said, and military spouses cannot accept new jobs “because they cannot predict when they could start.”
The defense secretary explained that officials serving in key positions — including the chief of staff of the Army and the director of the National Security Agency — are due to rotate out of their jobs within the next four months and that, without the promotions, the military can’t replace them. The tenure of service chiefs in the military is limited by law, which means incumbents must leave their positions at their appointed times.
Their positions, he said, oversee more than 1.2 million active and reserve service members and, “without these leaders in place, the U.S. military will incur an unnecessary and unprecedented degree of risk at a moment when our adversaries may seek to test our resolve.”
“The failure to confirm leaders in key roles transfers strategic risk down the chain of command and forces our units to operate with less experienced decision-makers in charge,” Austin wrote. “By destabilizing the senior military promotion and rotation process, we put our short- and long-term readiness at significant risk.”
In March, Tuberville said he would require the military promotions to be approved one by one, rather than in batches — what Congress calls unanimous consent — to protest a policy approved by Austin that grants three weeks of paid time off and travel reimbursement for service members and dependents if they travel out of state for an abortion.
The move followed last year’s Supreme Court’s ruling that ended the constitutional protections for abortion access granted 50 years before in Roe v. Wade.
The freshman senator said the Defense Department policy permits the use of taxpayer dollars to terminate pregnancies despite a congressional block on such spending via a decades-old law known as the Hyde Amendment. Tuberville previously said that if the Pentagon wants to spend money on such initiatives, it should be included in the department’s annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
Austin, for his part, has said the policy is necessary because women compose nearly 20 percent of the military and they do not get to choose where they are stationed.
In a statement Wednesday, Warren said Tuberville is “knowingly endangering military readiness and putting our troops at risk.”
“The Secretary of Defense has made clear in no uncertain terms that Senate Republicans are harming American national security by treating military families as political footballs,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Austin’s letter to Warren confirms what Democrats have been warning against — that Tuberville’s hold “is reckless, unprecedented, and harmful to our military readiness.”
“Our national security is not a bargaining chip for radical right-wing policies,” he said in a statement. “It is shameful that MAGA Republicans are so hellbent on eliminating reproductive choice that they are willing to jeopardize America’s standing abroad, the livelihood of service members, and our military readiness.”
Tuberville’s stall tactics don’t have the support of the top Republican in the chamber.
“No, I don’t support putting a hold on military nominations,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told reporters Wednesday, breaking with the freshman senator.
A bipartisan group of seven former defense secretaries — including two who served in President Donald Trump’s administration — said in a letter to Schumer and McConnell last week that military readiness and national security are being harmed by Tuberville’s hold on defense promotions.
While Democrats have criticized Tuberville’s position, some Senate Republicans have applauded his effort.
In a piece published in RealClearPolitics on Tuesday, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said Tuberville is “doing all Americans who value life a great service” by protesting the Pentagon’s abortion policy and “vowing to put a hold on promotions at the Pentagon until it stops.”
Azi Paybarah and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.