Kathleen Hicks takes a phone call from a senator shortly before her Senate confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C. Feb. 2, 2021.

Kathleen Hicks takes a phone call from a senator shortly before her Senate confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C. Feb. 2, 2021. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Tuberville holds on military nominations hurting readiness against China, says Deputy Defense Sec

From NDAA amendments and ‘poison pill’ spending bills to promotion holds, Republicans' efforts are frustrating Pentagon officials.

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii–Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s 9-months-and-counting hold on more than 250 Defense Department promotions is undermining the U.S. military in the Pacific, according to the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking civilian official. 

“One really good example of the challenge we're facing is…the third Marine Expeditionary Force. This is our primary force to do the naval expeditionary movements in any fight that could happen in the Western Pacific,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told reporters at a recent roundtable in Hawaii with representatives from INDOPACOM, U.S. Army Forces Pacific, and base officials at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. 

“What we're seeing there right now is we've had a delay in that transition of that commanding general from [III MEF]. Really disrupting to the Marine Corps’ largest expeditionary standing force. And it's here in INDOPACOM. And that's a real challenge. That's one specific example. But it layers on to this overall problem where we have maybe up to 89% of our general flag officer positions that could be vacant" in the coming year. So no matter what one thinks about the number of general officers in the military, which I've heard come up before, I don't think anyone would argue we [only] need 11 percent of them,” she said. 

Over the course of her two-day trip, Hicks spoke with INDOPACOM officials about their most pressing technology needs and how the Defense Department is looking to help them build new networking environments to better train with allies and scale up technology more quickly, including artificial intelligence solutions to match high-tech Chinese capabilities. Military officials and other experts worry that China could make a military play for Taiwan in 2027, the date by which Chinese President Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready for such a move. 

But much of the work the Defense Department is doing to meet what they define as the pacing challenge is being undermined by efforts from some Republican lawmakers, Hicks said. Tuberville’s holds are one dramatic example, but there are others. 

For instance, the House version of the 2024 NDAA includes amendments to roll back DOD climate initiatives. On Friday, Hicks visited Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where the Defense Department is undertaking a $2.8 billion improvement and construction effort. Many of those improvements are aimed at making sure the base is better prepared for sea-level rise and other effects of climate change. “Any time we see challenges to the military just trying to be as resilient as possible, as effective as possible in the range of futures that we face, I think that’s destructive to the military’s capability and its readiness…So, yes, it’s a challenge,” Hicks said.

But of greater concern for Hicks and the Pentagon is the looming possibility of a government shutdown. House Republicans are pushing spending bills that dramatically cut spending levels that both parties had previously agreed to, raising the prospect of a shutdown later this year. 

“By far, our most important priority is to make sure that we have on-time appropriations, and I am very worried about enough poison pills to create a shutdown scenario,” said Hicks. “As bad as it would be to have a [continuing resolution], which we always want to avoid, it would be even worse for the defense of the nation to have a shutdown. So getting the bills through the system is very, very important to us.”