CHICAGO — U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer might bypass the current four-star candidates for the service’s top uniformed position and instead recommend a three-star admiral, according to three sources familiar with the internal discussions.

Sources said former head of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and 10th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, currently head of the Joint Staff, is among the top contenders for the job of chief of naval operations.

If Spencer elevates a three-star admiral, it would be a rare exception. Adm. Arleigh Burke, who led the Navy in the mid-1950s through 1961, was elevated from a two-star to a four-star job at CNO, and is widely considered one of the great CNOs in Navy history. Gilday, if he gets the nod, would bring valuable experience in cyberwarfare, seen as one of the foremost challenges facing the Navy as it focuses on competing with China and Russia.

In a statement, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, Spencer’s spokesperson, said the secretary was going to be quick but deliberate.

“Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer is committed to quickly recommending a new CNO for nomination, and he will move to that decision urgently but deliberately," Higgins said. “This position is one of importance and responsibility, and as such it is necessary to ensure the right person is recommended. We will not share details of where the secretary is in the decision-making process.”

Any nomination would ultimately come from President Donald Trump, but Spencer plays a crucial role in identifying the most suitable candidates.

The discussions come against the backdrop of a remarkable leadership crisis sparked by the stunning retirement of Adm. Bill Moran, the current vice chief of naval operations who had already been confirmed by the Senate, after details emerged of a continuing professional relationship with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s former public affairs officer who was investigated, but not charged, for sexual harassment.

Moran had been seeking advice and counsel from retired Cmdr. Chris Servello, including looping him in on emails concerning the CNO transition, four sources familiar with the situation said. Federal statutes prohibit working for the government for free.

Two sources said there was a sense of urgency from lawmakers to get the position filled. Richardson is required by law to step down in September, meaning that in his absence it would be likely that newly elevated Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke would serve as the interim CNO.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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