Stalled military nominations under the surface at Newport defense industry conference

Acting chief of naval operations steers clear of subject of nomination. It’s on people’s minds anyway.

By: - August 29, 2023 7:13 pm

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti delivers remarks at the ninth annual Southeastern New England Defense Industry (SENEDIA) Defense Innovation Days at the Newport Marriott on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. The three-day conference brings together national security experts and policymakers with defense industry leaders. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray/released)

NEWPORT — Long-term commitment is one of the hallmarks of innovation, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the U.S. Navy’s vice chief of naval operations, told defense industry representatives and policymakers at a major conference at the Newport Marriott Tuesday.

The theme of obligation lingers just below the surface these days as Franchetti carries on amid a battle in the U.S. Senate over the Department of Defense’s policies on reproductive care, including abortion. Franchetti has been selected to become the next chief of naval operations to succeed Adm. Mike Gilday who retired Aug. 14. But she cannot officially assume the post without Senate confirmation. 

She was in Newport, a woman essentially doing two jobs, one in an acting capacity, to deliver remarks on the second day of the three-day Defense Innovation Days conference hosted by SENEDIA, The Alliance for Defense, Tech, Talent and Innovation. Franchetti also visited the U.S. Naval War College to lead a force design wargame, which will continue Wednesday.

Military nominees still stalled by Tuberville hold, with U.S. Senate gone until September 

In addition to the Navy, the Army and Marine Corps are also without Senate-confirmed top leaders for the first time in history for all three military services. Over 300 senior military leaders currently have their promotions and nominations on hold while the Pentagon has said that number may more than double by year’s end. 

If her nomination were to advance and be confirmed, Franchetti would become the first woman to be a military service chief and the first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She steered clear of the subject of her nomination being stuck in limbo in her conference speech, focusing on the need for long-term thinking to increase the nation’s fleet capacity in peacetime in order to enable it to surge effectively in the event of war.

Franchetti said the nation is in the midst of a “decisive decade,” similar to the early 1930s when the economic consequences of the Great Depression depleted the U.S. naval fleet and most of America’s private shipyards closed. Then rearmament efforts balanced the fleet with more modern battleships, submarines and aircraft carriers and other vessels that ensured the nation was prepared to fight and win World War II. 

“Only a concerted effort across the executive branch, Congress, and Navy industry can provide and maintain the fleet America needs to deter, fight, and win wars at sea,” Franchetti said. 

“Our decisive decade demands that same unity of effort, that same sense of urgency, and the same resolve. The stakes are too high, and the time is too short, to act otherwise.”

Although Franchetti never mentioned the political battle on Capitol Hill holding her nomination in limbo, she didn’t really need to.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) offers criticism of the GOP’s efforts to block military promotions in protest of Department of Defense policies on abortion care coverage during remarks Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at Newport Innovation Days at the Newport Marriott. The three-day conference is hosted by SENEDIA, the Alliance for Defense Tech, Talent, and Innovation. (Kathryn Whitney Lucey/ SENEDIA photo)

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who spoke at the conference in the morning, called out Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville by name as the “rogue senator” who is using senatorial privileges to put military promotions on hold. Tuberville, a member of the Armed Services Committee, objects to the Department of Defense policy that allows paid time off and reimburses travel costs for service members and dependents seeking reproductive care.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has criticized Tuberville for turning military leaders into “political pawns.” Reed delivered prepared remarks at the conference Monday.

“There are a million ways – formal and informal – in which leadership pressure can be brought to bear on a rogue Senator,” Whitehouse said in response to a question from the audience. 

“And that pressure is not being brought to bear on Sen. Tuberville. He’s been allowed to run around and block all of these promotions. And it’s enough for some of them to say: ‘Oh, we disapprove of this.’ But there’s no actual effort that has been made to deter him from doing it. And there are innumerable ways to do that.”

‘Business has to continue’

More than 500 participants registered for the conference to build connections to drive defense research, development and innovation. The polarization of the approval process for military nominations and promotions might only be a minor distraction for the defense industry right now, yet it does raise concerns among conference exhibitors.

“Business has to continue,” said David Cadorette, president of SEACORP, which has nearly 600 employees mostly in Middletown, Rhode Island, and Groton, Connecticut. The company provides systems, software and engineering testing and evaluation services for Navy submarine electronic systems.

“I’m 100% convinced that the work will proceed on schedule given the current threat situation and the environment that we’re in right now. I’m just looking at it from a business perspective and a national security perspective. That can’t hold things up.”

Cadorette said the blockade of military promotions and nominations still needs to be addressed.

“It does create uncertainty and it does create risk,” he said. “You need to make transitions of leadership. I want to make sure we’re building the right thing. I want to make sure we’re doing the right work.”

Guill Tool & Engineering, which employs 75 workers at its West Warwick plant, was among the smallest firms exhibiting at the conference.

“Anything that holds up the Navy especially with spending with the procurements of new parts, anything that stops or delays submarine building directly and indirectly affects a small business like Guill Tool,” said Joshua Carr, a contract specialist for the company. “It kind of holds up the ship if you will.”

In his remarks, Whitehouse said a bipartisan effort could get behind a parliamentary solution to stop Tuberville from forcing the Senate to bend to his will. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could ask to move all pending military nominations in a block and challenge parliamentary rule with a simple majority, Whitehouse said.

“That’s the so-called nuclear option through changing the rules,” Whitehouse added. “So there’s a way to do it. And I think we may end up having to do that. But that creates all sorts of other collateral problems having to do with rule changes in the Senate.”

In remarks Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023 at the Newport Marriott, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro says ensuring readiness and modernization for sailors and marines to succeed requires a continuous push to innovate. (Kathryn Whitney Lucey/ SENEDIA photo)

Del Toro grateful for submarine investments

It was the third SENEDIA conference for Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro since he was sworn in during the summer of 2021 to lead the maritime service branch with a more than $210 billion annual budget. Del Toro told listeners they would have to go back seven acting or appointed Secretaries of the Navy to find someone in office long enough to go to any conference three years in a row.

“Can we just pause for a moment and think about what that kind of turnover at the very top of an organization responsible for the security not only of our nation but of much of the planet’s maritime commerce—an organization of nearly one million dedicated sailors, marines and civilians—what that kind of instability does to an organization?” Del Toro asked.

“President Kennedy famously said: ‘When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.’”

Del Toro said the Navy is procuring ships and submarines more efficiently by leveraging the advantages of block buys. A few weeks ago, nine additional DDG 51-class guided missile destroyers were commissioned as part of the FY 2023-2027 multi-year procurement contract.

An additional 86 ships are under contract and 54 are in construction, including the Navy’s highest modernization priority, the first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. The submarine industrial base faces an increase in demand as the Navy ramps up production of the Columbia-class while continuing to procure two Virginia-class submarines per year.

“Congress has partnered with us, adding investments in the submarine industrial base and for that we are grateful,” Del Toro said. “These authorities and investments have led to key benefits, including improved workforce hiring at our submarine shipbuilders and the establishment of dedicated training centers and pipelines. This has resulted in over 3,500 people trained since 2020, and approximately 1,000 new workforce personnel in about 120 small/medium industry partners.”

SENEDIA’s Defense Innovation Days continues Wednesday with morning speakers including U.S. Rep Seth Magaziner (D-R.I.) and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, First District commander.


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Janine L. Weisman
Janine L. Weisman

Rhode Island Current Editor-in-Chief Janine L. Weisman served as a reporter and editor during her 25-year career in the newsroom of The Newport Daily News. She is an adjunct journalism faculty member at Roger Williams University.