Army Secretary Christine Wormuth warned Tuesday of a potential ‘talent drain’ among the service’s officers if a single senator’s hold on senior military promotions continues.
The Army’s top civilian said mid-career officers could choose to retire early instead of facing potential issues brought by Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade on promotions for generals and admirals. Tuberville, R-Ala., has for seven months blocked normally uncontroversial procedural votes to confirm senior military officers in batches over his objection to a Pentagon policy allowing service members paid leave and expense reimbursements for travel related to reproductive health care, including abortions.
“I’m very worried about the longer-term downstream effects, which I think are growing stronger and stronger,” Wormuth said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Our majors, our lieutenant colonels, our colonels are looking at this, and I think saying, ‘Do I want to put my family through this … if this is what happens when you become a general officer? Maybe I’d rather retire now and go and work in industry or work in some other area.”
However, the , which might be helping the service weather Tuberville’s block and a recruiting crisis, Wormuth said. The military’s largest branch will miss its enlistment goal for a second straight year, and Tuberville’s hold, she argued, could deepen recruiting and retention challenges.
So far, Tuberville’s hold has ensnared more than 300 general and flag officers across the military to date, and has left the Army, Marine Corps and Navy without confirmed service chiefs. Senate Democrats warned this week that the block could impact about 90% of the Pentagon’s generals and admirals by the end of the year.
Army Gen. Mark Milley’s law-mandated retirement at the end of September will leave the military without a confirmed top officer, as Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown’s nomination to replace Milley is also caught in the hold. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he will not hold individual votes on military nominations, which Democrats have argued would eat up months of floor time.
Tuberville, a former college football coach and first-term senator who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has insisted his hold has not harmed the military’s combat readiness, and he has maintained he will not drop it unless the Pentagon rescinds its abortion travel policy, which he views as illegal. Wormuth said it is forcing her generals to do double duty, including the service’s acting chief of staff, , who is officially the service’s vice chief of staff.
“Every day I stumble, you know, I call him, ‘Chief,’ I call him ‘Acting chief,’ I call him ‘Vice,” Wormuth said. “But, Gen. George is essentially doing two jobs, and the role of the chief and the role of the vice are both more than full-time jobs already, and we have multiple examples of our general officers who are doing that.”
George, who was nominated by President Joe Biden in April to become the Army’s next top officer, last month became acting Army chief of staff when Gen. James McConville retired. George spoke alongside Wormuth at CSIS on Tuesday, but he did not address Tuberville’s hold.
A spokesman for Tuberville declined comment Tuesday on Wormuth’s comments.
Despite the issues caused by the promotions hold and recent recruiting challenges, Wormuth said the service can still “do all of the things that the president and the secretary of defense have asked us to do.”
“I think it’s worth noting that the Army, in terms of [operations] tempo, is about as busy now as we were during the two decades of the Global War on Terrorism,” she said. “We’re very, very busy, [but] I do think there is a point at which the Army could become too small to be able to do everything that it needs to do.”
She warned the Army could not sustain a war in Europe or the Pacific theatre with less than 450,000 active-duty soldiers. The Army now boasts more than 470,000 active-duty soldiers.
Wormuth said the Army would enlist fewer than 60,000 soldiers for fiscal 2023, which ends Sept. 30. The Army initially . Nonetheless, Wormuth expressed optimism about recruiting increases in recent months, though she did not provide specific data.
“We’ve been seeing the pace of [enlistment] contracts in the last two months being very, very strong, so I think that we’ve done better than I would have expected a year ago,” she said. “That said, we do need to make some more profound changes to allow us to take the progress that we’ve made this year and build on it so that we can get back to a point where we are recruiting 60,000 or more young Americans into the force every year.”