USAF Gen. David Allvin speaks during his confirmation hearing to be chief of staff of the Air Force on September 12, 2023, at Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

USAF Gen. David Allvin speaks during his confirmation hearing to be chief of staff of the Air Force on September 12, 2023, at Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Getty Images / Alex Wong

Senators trade barbs about promotion holds during hearing for Air Force chief nominee

Gen. David Allvin, tapped to replace Gen. CQ Brown as leader of the Air Force, is one of hundreds of officers in limbo.

An Alabama Republican’s ongoing holds on senior military promotions and nominations “have become a national security nightmare,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Air Force Gen. David Allvin, one of the many leaders caught up in the holds. 

“When I met with NATO leaders, I heard concerns that leaving so many senior positions unfilled is leading our allies to question our commitment to NATO.” Warren said at the Senate Armed Services committee hearing, referring to holds placed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. “Instead of trying to embarrass the United States in front of its allies and trying to embolden our enemies, the senator from Alabama should lift his holds and let our top military leaders do their jobs.”  

Disagreements over the holds peppered the SASC’s first confirmation hearing since senators returned from their August break. The hearing also covered a range of service-specific issues including the Sentinel missile program to replacing aging aircraft with more advanced platforms and systems. However, even after six months after the holds began, senators cannot seem to agree on how to resolve, or even lessen, the pressure the stalemate is putting on the military.

Allvin’s nomination to lead the Air Force as its next chief of staff is stuck in a logjam Tuberville created in protest of the Pentagon’s policies that help troops travel to get reproductive health care, including abortions. Allvin is set to replace Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, who has been nominated as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For now, that position will be filled by the vice chairman in an acting role when Gen. Mark Milley retires Sept. 29.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on Monday called on Tuberville to end the hold on nominations, saying that troops and their families “are having their readiness and their lives negatively impacted by your unprecedented actions."

“They are all doing their duty and making whatever sacrifice we ask of them, including the ones associated with your holds,” Kendall said at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “I am asking you to lift the blanket hold you have on over 300 general officers awaiting Senate approval of their well-earned promotions.”

Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., said Tuesday that Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin “could change this with the stroke of a pen by this afternoon. We could have this resolved if Secretary Austin would revert to the historical policy that we've had for decades in the Pentagon.”   

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the Senate could “easily confirm” Allvin if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would call for votes on the nominations individually.

“So I don't think it'd be too much to ask for the Senate to spend a little bit of time confirming four-star general officers positions like chief of staff of the Air Force, or commandant of the Marine Corps, or chief of naval operations,” Cotton said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pushed back on that approach and called it “laughable” to blame Schumer. He also said voting only on the top positions would essentially mean punishing the other officer nominees.

Kaine invoked the memory of late Republican Sen. John McCain telling colleagues about his time as prisoner of war in Vietnam, when McCain—whose father had been a top admiral in the Navy—famously refused to let his captors release him from prison before the other POWs.

“What? We're going to have votes for the top brass and just turn a blind eye to punishing hundreds of other people who are waiting?,” Kaine said. “It's a punishment…Why would we benefit the people at the top and cavalierly allow others to be punished? ...That seems to be completely contrary to what I know the U.S. military ethic is.”

Sen. Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that by not promoting all those in limbo, the top officers would end up without “the leadership that reports to them.”

“And you can't do your job without a team under you. And you've observed to me how important you think that team is. And I hope we will resolve these issues as quickly as possible,” Blumenthal said.

Asked for his thoughts on how the holds are affecting recruitment and retention, Allvin replied said he believes the holds are hurting both those efforts.  And, he said, he’s concerned about the “signal” the holds are sending, and whether some people are more likely to look elsewhere for careers.