Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went on offense Tuesday against one Republican senator’s blockade of 160 senior military promotions, cautioning that delaying the moves will harm national security.
Austin delivered the warning at a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, where he made the case for the Pentagon’s annual defense budget. The defense chief was asked about Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s temporary hold, which is based on new policies aimed at shoring up troops’ access to abortions, and pleaded with the Republican to change course.
Without naming the Alabama senator or citing the abortion policy, Austin called the impact of delaying routine military promotions “absolutely critical” as dozens, potentially hundreds, of general and flag officer picks pile up. He cited a number of tense global situations, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China and Iran.
“There are a number of things happening globally that indicate that we could be in a contest on any one given day,” Austin said. “Not approving the recommendations for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”
“The effects are cumulative and it will affect families. It will affect kids going to schools because they won’t be able to change their duty station,” he added. “It’s a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness.”
On the other side is Tuberville, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who is following through on a threat to object to quick confirmations of Pentagon civilian nominees and senior military officer promotions after Austin rolled out policies that cover expenses and permit leave for troops who have to travel to obtain abortions.
During Tuesday’s session, Tuberville criticized Austin and the Biden administration over a raft of policies he and other conservatives argue politicize the military — including rooting out extremism, booting troops over a now-repealed Covid vaccine mandate and instituting the new abortion payment policy.
“Now my colleagues on the left think this abortion issue is good for a campaign, and that’s what this shouldn’t be about,” Tuberville said. “I’m not going to let our military be politicized.”
President Joe Biden’s civilian nominees have been mired in Senate gridlock for much of his term. But senior military promotions typically cruise to Senate approval with little opposition, with the chamber sometimes approving hundreds of moves at once.
The volume of senior military promotions makes it harder for Senate Democrats to get around Tuberville’s objections than it is for civilian nominees. And Tuberville has indicated he won’t stop his obstruction of nominees unless the abortion policy is reversed or suspended.
Tuberville and Austin spoke last week, but the Alabama Republican hasn’t budged. Austin appealed directly to Tuberville during the hearing to relinquish his objections.
“I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward,” Austin said. “It will make a significant difference for our force.”
Though the policy only pays for travel expenses, Tuberville criticized the new rule as a backdoor way to fund abortions, which the Defense Department is barred from paying for in most cases. He argued Congress should vote on the issue.
“I want to be clear on this: My hold has nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision to the access of abortion,” Tuberville said. “This is about not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortions.”
Austin defended the Pentagon’s response to extremism, noting that the military has long had regulations against extremist behavior. He also said the vaccine mandate, which Congress repealed late last year, “saved lives” and argued it didn’t affect recruiting.
The abortion policy was based on feedback from troops and senior leaders, Austin said, “based on strong legal ground.”
“Almost one in five of our troops is women,” Austin said. “And they don’t get a chance to choose where they’re stationed. So almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places where they don’t have access to non-covered reproductive health care.”
Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who teed up the early question at Tuesday’s hearing, agreed with Austin. He warned of senior military positions that would come open in the coming months, including the next Joint Chiefs chair.
“As I look forward, I have never in my almost three decades here seen so many key military positions coming up for replacement,” Reed said.
“If we cannot resolve the situation, we will be, in many respects, leaderless at a time of great conflict,” the chair warned. “So, I would hope we would expedite and move quickly on this front.”
A Defense Department official said the Pentagon projects that, between now and the end of the year, 650 general and flag officers will require Senate confirmation. Eighty of those are three and four-star generals or admirals, the official noted.
A plethora of senior military leaders are set to retire in the coming months, including top officers in the Marine Corps, Navy and Army. Multiple combatant commanders, including the heads of U.S. Northern Command, Space Command and Cyber Command, are also set to rotate out of their posts.
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, who testified alongside Austin, is also set to retire in the fall when his four-year term as the military’s top officer expires.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has noted that the list includes officers tapped to command naval forces in the Pacific and Middle East, as well as a military representative to the NATO Military Committee.
In a speech Monday criticizing Tuberville, Schumer said the impasse risks “permanently politicizing the confirmation of military personnel.”
“If every single one of us objected to the promotion of military personnel whenever we feel passionately or strongly about an issue, our military would simply grind to a halt,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Paul McLeary and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.