Politico

Lawmakers on edge over lack of nominee for top Joint Chiefs job


Lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned that the White House has yet to name a successor for Gen. John Hyten, the military’s No. 2 officer, one month before he is set to retire.

The anxiety comes as the Senate already faces an agenda clogged with other Pentagon and State Department nominations and a host of other high-stakes problems to tackle. Hyten, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is slated to retire on Nov. 21.

Three defense officials, speaking on background because no decision has been announced publicly, have pointed to Adm. Christopher Grady, head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces command, as being in the lead for the job, while Adm. Charles Richard, commander of Strategic Command, is also under consideration.

The delay in announcing a nominee has already scuttled Grady’s planned handover of Fleet Forces to his successor, two of the officials confirmed. The event, originally planned for mid-October, has been moved to November, with no date set in stone. That leaves his replacement, Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, who left the Submarine Force Atlantic command on Sept. 10, effectively without a job for at least two months.

The close timing already has some top lawmakers on edge.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a critic of President Joe Biden’s national security policies, said he wants a nominee “very soon” and will push for the panel to consider the pick quickly, but he dinged the president for not acting sooner to fill the impending vacancy.

“The law is clear, so it should come as no surprise to President Biden that the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff position will be vacant soon, yet here we are, just over a month out from General Hyten’s departure, and President Biden has yet to put forward a nomination,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Given the enormous threats we face worldwide, it is alarming that President Biden would risk the number-two military advisor position sitting empty.

“Yet we shouldn’t be shocked — this is just another example of his complete lack of regard for the military advice he receives from the Joint Chiefs and the military in general,” Inhofe added, referencing Biden’s contradiction of military brass who recommended keeping some U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a recent interview that his panel would try to work quickly to avoid a prolonged vacancy on the Joint Chiefs, citing the vice chair’s role leading the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a panel with oversight into the development of military acquisition programs, and other top posts.

“You don’t want that now because … we’ve got a whole host of issues we’re addressing,” Reed told POLITICO.

Asked for comment, White House officials would only confirm that there is no nominee for the job at this point.

A Republican Senate Armed Services aide estimated that a Pentagon nominee with no issues and close coordination between the Pentagon and leadership on the Senate floor could see a vote in as quickly as 15 to 30 days, but noted the average timeline is longer for most nominees.

While the Senate could move into high gear to quickly confirm Hyten’s replacement, it would have to fit a hefty amount of work — including vetting the nominee, meetings with senators, a confirmation hearing, a committee vote and a confirmation vote in the full Senate — into just a few weeks before the expected handover.

With a narrow window, any delay in the Senate, where one member could throw up procedural roadblocks and draw out a confirmation, could mean a lengthy gap in the No. 2 spot on the Joint Chiefs.

Such was the case in 2019, when Hyten’s confirmation process came to a standstill as senators reviewed allegations of sexual assault lodged by a former subordinate. Though Hyten was eventually confirmed, the vote came roughly two months after Gen. Paul Selva retired as vice chair. In all, the post went unfilled for nearly four months as Hyten waited to turn over the role as head of U.S. Strategic Command to Richard after his confirmation.

Reed predicted a nomination needs to be made by early November to ensure a seamless transition between Hyten and his successor.

“We’d need, one would hope, three to four weeks,” Reed told POLITICO. “I know they’re working on it,” he added, pointing out that the sooner someone is named for the job, it would “give Hyten the chance to socialize and talk to the nominee about the specific issues he’s facing.”

The two admirals up for the job would give the Navy a seat at the table as the Pentagon looks to invest more resources into the Navy and Air Force in the coming years after two decades of grinding counterinsurgency fights.

With the Army and Marine Corps having had a lock on the chair job since Adm. Mike Mullen retired in 2011, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown has been floated by some as the potential replacement for Gen. Mark Milley when his term is up in 2023. If an Air Force general gets the position, it would be the first time an airman would occupy the office since 2005.

At Fleet Forces, Grady has overseen the establishment of the 2nd Fleet, a command designed to monitor Russian submarines in the Atlantic and prioritize more operations and exercises in the Arctic, two areas of growing concern. Grady has also commanded the 6th Fleet in Europe and was deputy commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa.

Grady also served as assistant to former Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joe Dunford, and he did a stint at the National Security Council and as an aircraft carrier strike group commander.

Richard, current head of Strategic Command, would follow Hyten’s path from STRATCOM to the Pentagon in the midst of the rewrite of the Nuclear Posture Review, and the growth of China’s nuclear ambitions. Richard was a career submariner before commanding the Navy’s Submarine Force Atlantic and director of Undersea Warfare at the Pentagon.

In his two years at the Pentagon, Hyten has taken a leading role in pushing for acquisition reform, particularly in building an effort to get the branches of the armed services to consider collaborating when buying new systems, as opposed to focusing on their own more narrow requirements.

He also introduced a new planning document, the Joint Warfighting Concept, that spells out how the services will work together to develop new weapons systems collaboratively. It’s a heavy lift, but there has been some movement among the services in finding ways to share targeting data and handing off strike missions.

“We’re trying to move fast and to enable the department to move fast, but I’m running out of time,” before retiring, Hyten said in July.

Hyten’s two-year tenure is a unique case. His departure comes as the result of changes in the law mandated by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed that the vice chair now serve a single four-year term as opposed to two consecutive two year terms. The reasoning was to ensure that the chair and the vice chair positions are offset by two years.

Having taken office on Nov. 21, 2019, after the law went into effect, means he would have to serve four more years if reappointed this year, leading to an unprecedented six years as the vice chief. There have been no public suggestions from the White House or Pentagon that this is an option under consideration.

With time quickly running out on Hyten’s tenure, however, some are growing concerned about what a vacancy would mean for the Pentagon.

“It’s one thing to have appointments for civilian Senate-confirmed positions at the beginning of a new administration,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But everyone has known that Gen. Hyten’s statutory tour was ending, and there is no excuse to gap the position of the second-most senior military leader.”

Getting vetted nominees through the Senate has been difficult for the Biden administration, but the White House has also been slow in sending names to the Hill. There are still no nominees to lead the Pentagon’s acquisition office, the Navy undersecretary job and several top policy and intelligence positions. The State Department is also finding itself short-staffed. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has held up dozens of ambassadors and other high-level State positions over his demand that the Biden administration impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company building a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has also pledged to block the confirmation of any national security nominee until Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, resign over the handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Military promotions have largely escaped the partisan firestorm surrounding the confirmation of many of Biden’s civilian Pentagon nominees, but any senator who opposes the Joint Chiefs pick, or simply wants to extract information or concessions from the administration, could slow walk the nominee.

A lone senator can’t stop a nominee from being confirmed, but they could force Democratic leaders to clear extra hurdles and burn up several hours of valuable floor time on procedural votes.

As the wait continues, “not having a Senate confirmed new vice chair ready to be appointed when Hyten’s tour is up would be a signal of weakness and bureaucracy in a dangerous and uncertain world,” Punaro said.

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