Who will be the president’s top military adviser after Gen. Milley retires?

Congress provides civilian oversight of the military.
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mark milley
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley (Department of Defense)

The U.S. military could be without a Senate-confirmed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Army Gen. Mark Milley retires in little more than two weeks.

If the Senate has not confirmed Milley’s successor by Oct. 1, Navy Adm. Christopher Grady will temporarily serve as both chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Army Col. David Butler, a spokesman for Milley.

Grady has served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since December 2021. He is also the current holder of the service’s “Old Salt” award, recognizing him as the longest serving surface warfare officer on active duty in the Navy. 

Since February, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has blocked the Senate from using a parliamentary procedure that lawmakers routinely use to approve military promotions en masse rather than hold individual votes on every general and flag officer up for promotion. Voting on each promotion individually could take months, the Associated Press has reported.

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Tuberville’s hold is in protest of a Defense Department policy that covers the travel expenses of troops who need to travel out of care for reproductive care, including abortion.

Tuberville’s hold has prevented the Senate from voting to confirm Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brown is currently serving as the Air Force’s chief of staff.

CQ Brown
Air Force Chief of Staff Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. addresses students from Air War College and Air Command and Staff College at Air University. (Trey Ward/U.S. Air Force)

As vice chairman, Grady already has a variety of responsibilities including leading the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, or JROC, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.

During the Iraq war, the JROC determined how many Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that each military branch would receive.

“So if you add the duties of the chairman of the joint chiefs, that’s a lot for a person to cover for an extended period of time,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news conference.

Over the summer, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other defense officials  spoke with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as Tuberville on the issue of Milley’s departure, Ryder said.

“Secretary Austin continues to lean hard into this and plans to conduct additional calls with senators this week and will continue to speak out and urge Sen. Tuberville to lift his holds that are putting our readiness and our national security at risk,” Ryder said.

Tuberville appeared to be caught off guard on Monday when he learned that Milley could not remain chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff beyond Oct. 1.

In an exchange with CNN producer Morgan Rimmer, Tuberville said: “He has to leave? …We’ll get someone else to do the job.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tuberville’s spokesman Steven Stafford told Task & Purpose on Tuesday that the senator is confident in Grady’s abilities to effectively advise Biden on military matters.

Stafford noted that Tuberville made a speech on Monday calling for senators to hold a vote this month on Brown’s promotion.

“Coach is willing to vote on all of the nominees,” Stafford said, referencing Tuberville’s career as a college football coach prior to joining the Senate.

Brown’s nomination to replace Milley is the highest profile of more than 300 nominations Tuberville has blocked so far.   

Should the Senate not confirm Brown by Oct. 1, he would remain Air Force chief of staff, an Air Force spokesperson said.

If Brown were to move up the position of Chairman, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin has been nominated to replace Brown as Air Force chief of staff. If the Senate votes to confirm Brown but not the other nominations that Tuberville is blocking, Allvin would serve as the Air Force’s acting chief of staff, the Air Force spokesperson said.

Tuberville’s hold has already prevented Army Gen. Randy George, Marine Gen. Eric Smith, and Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti from becoming Army chief of staff, Marine Corps commandant, and chief of naval operations respectively. All three are currently dual hatted as acting service chiefs and vice chiefs.

naval CNO first woman
Admiral Lisa Franchetti was nominated July 21, 2023, as Chief of Naval Operations. If Confirmed she would be the first woman to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force wrote a recent commentary in the Washington Post arguing that Tuberville’s hold on promotions is putting U.S. national security at risk.

“The generals and admirals who will be leading our forces a decade from now are colonels and captains today,” the service secretaries wrote. “They are watching this spectacle and might conclude that their service at the highest ranks of our military is no longer valued by members of Congress or, by extension, the American public.”

By holding up the nominations of hundreds of general and flag officers for political reasons, Tuberville is harming civil-military relations, said Risa Brooks, a political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

Tuberville’s actions are also a distraction from Congress’ responsibility to provide civilian oversight of the U.S. military, Brooks told Task & Purpose.

“If the issue was that those being held up for promotion, there was some indication that they weren’t competent or weren’t worthy of those promotions, that might be one reason to hold them up, and maybe that would be consistent with civilian oversight of the military,” Brooks said. “But holding up the promotions over DoD policies that you don’t like, when those officers are not implicated or involved in making those policies, is really inappropriate and contrary to the civilian oversight role.”

Moreover, Congress has been unable to affirm the suitability of the officers currently leading the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps as a result of Tuberville’s actions, said Kori Schake, head of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

As a senator, Tuberville can propose legislation to change the Defense Department policy to which he objects, said Schake, who co-authored a book with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on the civil-military divide.

“Using the politicization of the military to object to a policy is terrible for the military’s relationship to the political leadership, and it’s terrible for the military’s relationship with the American public,” Schake told Task & Purpose.

Tuberville’s blanket hold on military promotions is unprecedented in its scope and how long it has lasted, said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in North Carolina.

“Senate confirmation of senior military officers is an important exercise of civilian oversight of the military, but the system is not designed to function in this way – and hobbling the military and military readiness in this way is not the best way to maintain effective civilian control,” Feaver Task & Purpose.

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