Nomination Delays Spur Pentagon Personnel Crisis

Only six appointees confirmed by Senate as threats from Russia and China grow

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July 21, 2021

More than two dozen vital leadership positions at the Pentagon remain without appointees from President Joe Biden, a historic delay that could threaten national security, according to experts.

Biden has only pushed six senior Department of Defense nominees through the full confirmation process, leaving vacancies among military brass. He has yet to install secretaries of the Navy and Air Force more than six months into his administration. Some 20 nominees for senior positions await confirmation votes.

The sluggish pace falls short of even the Trump administration’s early staffing woes, which Democrats roundly criticized at the time. A Washington Free Beacon analysis found that by the end of July 2017, the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Senate confirmed more senior political appointees to the Pentagon than the Biden administration, and several others received confirmation in the following months.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to speed up its nominee process and bring nominees to a vote as soon as possible.

"It’s integral to have Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, no matter who is the president—it’s in the best interest of our national security," Inhofe told the Free Beacon. "I’d like to see Sen. Schumer bring more of these nominees to the floor for a vote sooner rather than later, and I welcome additional nominees from President Biden, including for critical service assistant secretary positions."

Schumer did not return a request for comment.

Critical unfilled positions are not limited to service chiefs. The Biden administration has not submitted nominations for assistant secretary positions integral to setting plans for weapons and vehicle acquisition, legislative affairs, and military readiness. Many of these positions shape future defense budgets, and a lack of confirmed political leadership at the Pentagon sets the administration back in drafting long-term plans to compete with Russia and China, lawmakers and experts say.

Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense, said the "clock is ticking" for the Biden administration to staff its department as it wastes time crucial to developing plans to beat Russia and China. He pointed to the National Defense Strategy—a massive document produced every four years to outline America's future defense strategy—which is set for public release in 2022. The release of the document could be derailed by vacancies at the Pentagon. 

"This administration has to produce a new national defense strategy, and the key people who would do that have not had a [Senate] vote," Spoehr said. "That constrains the administration in making changes and implementing policy.... They have no enthusiasm or interest in talking about national defense."

The Biden administration's confirmation process has been hindered in part by Democratic opposition. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has held up several nominees, including the potential secretary of the Air Force, citing their close ties to the defense industry. Armed Services Committee member Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) blasted the administration’s unpreparedness on the issue, telling the Free Beacon the White House’s sluggish pace shows "a fundamental lack of care for issues such as national security and budget." 

China and Russia in recent years have unveiled upgraded weapons and platforms such as nuclear missiles, submarines, and space weapons. For House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), the slow appointment process makes it "impossible" for the Pentagon to enact vital changes to keep pace with foreign adversaries, particularly in the Air Force, as well as in space defense.

"This administration hasn’t even bothered to nominate a person for the assistant secretary [for space acquisition] position, much less work to get them through a Senate controlled by the president’s party," Rogers told the Free Beacon. "Every day we wait is another day China and Russia have to overtake us in space."

The White House did not return a request for comment.

Jack McEvoy contributed reporting to this article.