The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is calling for the military to immediately drop its mandate that service members be vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it a “politically motivated” decision by the administration.
“At a time when our adversaries continue to increase their quantitative and qualitative advantage against our forces, we should seek to ensure that no policy, even unintentionally, hinders military readiness,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday.
“Most troublesome is the lack of clarity and consistency among the services as they look to implement the administration’s hasty vaccination mandate. Combined with the uncertainty and burden the vaccination mandate places on industry, this administration will do more damage to the nation’s security than any external threat.”
Inhofe, the former Armed Services Committee chairman, remains an influential voice on Pentagon policy and defense operations even while Democrats control the Senate. His comments are among the strongest yet from Republicans in Congress in opposition to the vaccine mandate.
Inhofe’s letter comes about three months after he publicly chastised President Joe Biden for taking too much credit for development of the coronavirus vaccines (he argued former President Donald Trump’s actions were more beneficial in the vaccine rollout) and 10 months after he received the vaccine.
At the time, Inhofe said he was making his vaccination public because “I wanted to show my confidence in the safety of the vaccine and as part of the continuity of government protocols.”
But in his letter to Austin, Inhofe said that mandating that troops and civilian federal defense workers get the vaccine risks the “readiness and morale” of the force and should be immediately suspended.
Last week, Defense Department officials said that roughly 97 percent of active-duty troops are at least partially vaccinated, and just under 84 percent are fully vaccinated.
All Air Force and Space Force members are required to be vaccinated by Nov. 2. Navy and Marine Corps members have until Nov. 28, and Army soldiers have until Dec. 15.
Vaccination rates for the Guard and Reserve lag significantly behind the active-duty rates.
Even with most military members following the vaccine mandate, Inhofe said he has concerns that the new rule could hurt recruiting and retention.
“Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known,” he said.
“With an ever shrinking candidate pool, hastily executed policies such as this work to further diminish the ability of the Department to tap into the finite resource of people critical to national security.”
House lawmakers included language in the annual defense authorization bill that would prohibit defense officials from giving less-than-honorable dismissals to troops who refuse the vaccine, but that provision is unlikely to become law for several months at the earliest.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that if troops refuse the vaccine “there could be disciplinary action.” But he also said that there are “lots of tools available to leaders, short of using the Uniform of Code of Military Justice, to get these troops to do the right thing for themselves and for their units.”
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, at least 67 service members have died from coronavirus-related complications. Of that group, 66 were completely unvaccinated, and the other had only the first dose of the two-shot vaccine regimen.
Reporter Meghann Myers contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.