An unprecedented Senate freeze in confirming more than 300 senior military officers for critical jobs across the joint force demands immediate action to avoid the national security disaster that could arise from not having a full stable of senior leadership.
Leaving key vacancies in critical Pentagon leadership posts — including the Army chief of staff and Marine Corps commandant — is never wise. The Marine Corps hasn’t had a vacancy in its top leadership post since 1910-1911, according to the Pentagon, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said there was never before a time when both the top Army and Marine Corps leadership posts were vacant simultaneously.
This is an especially bad situation in today’s global environment. It puts the U.S. and our allies and partners at unnecessary risk, and it tarnishes America’s reputation as an unshakeable, always-ready global leader.
This monthslong blockade has steadily grown while the U.S. and the world face deepening crises and threats, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s increased tests of nuclear-capable missiles to China’s threatening modernization and the unsettling recent display of Russian and Chinese warships operating together off the Alaskan coast. Times of transition, particularly among top leaders, are already dangerous. It is not hard to fathom how one or several of these threats could explode.
The only ones benefiting from this reckless and unnecessary delay in filling vital leadership positions are America’s adversaries, who are always looking for weaknesses in America’s resolve. The U.S. has long been revered for its stability and the professionalism of its leaders; derailing this traditional, nonpartisan process tarnishes that shine.
A team of experienced military leaders could help deter conflict while also preparing for what happens if deterrence escalates into major warfare. It is not so easy when key command positions are vacant or temporarily filled by someone who’s not able to fully exercise the power of the office.
Temporary leaders — like Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George, who is performing the duties of the chief of staff and pending confirmation by the Senate — face limits on their authority while awaiting confirmation because they are prevented from taking any actions that assume they will be confirmed.
This crisis of our own making is entirely avoidable if the Senate can find a solution other than crippling Department of Defense leadership by benching the first team.
A freeze at the top has implications throughout the ranks as well. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth described a service “now in limbo” because of the hold on confirmations.
“We need these leaders in place to ensure the readiness of our force. And we need to end all of this uncertainty for our military families,” she said at the Aug. 4 ceremony where Gen. James McConville relinquished responsibility as the 40th Army chief of staff.
Delayed promotions of senior military leaders have a direct impact on lieutenant colonels and above because their climb up the ranks and permanent change-of-station moves to relocate their families are all impacted. For other soldiers, they may be left wondering who’s in charge and about the strength of the government’s commitment to military members and their families.
Military life is never easy for families. I say this as someone who moved 26 times in my Army career. Being in limbo is terrible for families — not knowing when they need to pack, where they’ll be attending school, when a spouse will land a job and even if their children will be able to play on a sports team at their new location. The incredible uncertainty caused by the confirmation delays impacts the entire family and could lead to the loss of talented leaders who may decide to leave the service early. This is not the people-first philosophy we aspire to have in the Army.
We need a fair confirmation process that encourages high-quality people to serve in higher ranks. This freeze is completely unnecessary. There is a solution: having the Senate change its rules on the confirmation of general officers, eliminating the ability of any one senator to freeze a nomination.
General and flag officer nominations should be reviewed and confirmed in a timely manner and be blocked only for conduct, character or competence concerns.
When the Senate returns in September, bipartisan leaders should approve the waiting backlog of defense nominations and revise the rules so that routine promotions do not become entangled in other matters. That is the right thing to do.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Robert Brown is president and CEO of the Association of the United States Army. He previously led U.S. Army Pacific.