NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Top Defense Department officials at an Air Force conference this week repeatedly decried — at times in direct and colorful language — a senator’s wide-ranging hold on confirmations of general officers and called on him to lift it.
The comments at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference here continued the Pentagon’s recent pattern of confronting Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, over his six-month blockade of general officer nominations over the department’s abortion policy. And they mark a noticeable difference in how Pentagon officials, particularly uniformed officers, tend to approach differences with Capitol Hill, which are usually handled behind the scenes or with gentler public phrasing.
Tuberville objects to the Pentagon’s decision, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, to allow troops to take leave to travel to another state to receive abortion services if they serve in a state that bans such care.
More than 300 general officer nominations are now held up by Tuberville’s holds, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown’s nomination to succeed Army Gen. Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley is required by law to retire at the start of October. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps also are without confirmed service chiefs due to the hold.
Gen. Mark Kelly, the retiring head of Air Combat Command, warned in a roundtable with reporters Tuesday that the disruption and unfilled positions caused by the hold have not just unsettled allies and caused them to lose confidence in the United States’ competence but have also emboldened the nation’s adversaries.
“If you drive north … on Connecticut Avenue, that popping sound is not stray gunfire,” Kelly said. “It’s champagne corks in the Chinese Embassy, bouncing off the walls.”
In his keynote address to AFA on Monday, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall led a round of applause for several general officers who have been waiting — in some cases up to half a year — for the Senate to confirm them in their new roles.
Though Kendall did not mention Tuberville by name in his address, he did call out the senator over perceived consequences.
“This is a situation that one senator has created for us,” Kendall said. “All these men and women, and their units and their families, are having their readiness and their lives negatively affected by your unprecedented actions.
“They are all doing their duty and making whatever sacrifice we ask of them — including the ones associated with your holds.”
Kendall, along with Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, also co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post and appeared on CNN earlier this month blasting Tuberville’s hold.
At AFA on Tuesday, Kelly — who noted he expected to be retired by now after Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach would have succeeded him — said he’s worried about the effect the hold is having on the military’s officer corps, allies and adversaries.
Officers and their families give a great deal when they serve in the military, he said, citing the disruptions to their children’s education and spouses’ employment opportunities that can come with military life.
But, Kelly said, their tolerance is not unlimited.
“Each [officer] has their own individual red line,” Kelly said. “I talk to them every day. And we’re on the fringe of losing a generation of champions, [in] my opinion.”
Kelly said the United States’ allies look to its military as “a beacon of competence and confidence” — but the nation’s current dynamic “does not instill confidence.”
“Some of them are interested and vexed, some of them are downright concerned,” Kelly continued. “We try to allay those concerns as much as possible, but it’s getting more challenging by the day.”
In his own remarks at AFA on Wednesday, Navy Adm. Christopher Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also highlighted the “human cost” to the hold and said it must be considered.
“It goes beyond” the general and flag officers, he said. “It goes all the way down to those [lieutenant colonels], who are looking up and waiting to move forward and can’t do it right now. That is challenging.”
“The fact that folks can’t plan for their moves or get their kids in school, that’s also challenging,” Grady continued. “There’s a very significant human dimension to this.”
Grady said Brown “definitely is the right man at the right time” to succeed Milley, and called for him to be confirmed.
Kendall said he and other defense leaders had constructive conversations with Tuberville in the past, and are happy to talk with him about the hold. But the secretary drew a line against changing the abortion policy that has incensed the Republican.
“As far as I can tell, we’re not going to change the policy. I see no indication of that,” Kendall said. “And I don’t think we should, quite frankly.
“So, we need to resolve this,” he continued. “It’s gone on long enough. It’s doing a lot of harm.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.