The retirement of the four-star admiral who heads U.S. Pacific Command has been stalled for months and now senior defense officials will consider whether he will be promoted to the Pentagon’s top military post.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, who has commanded the Defense Department’s Pacific region since March 2012, is one of a handful of senior officers under consideration for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon’s most senior officer. Locklear, 60, had submitted his retirement documents in recent weeks but was asked to delay that retirement. That gives newly-minted Defense Secretary Ash Carter more options as he considers who to recommend for several top jobs opening up later this year.
Locklear’s successor, Adm. Harry Harris, has been waiting in the wings to assume Pacific Command, or PACOM, since the U.S. Senate confirmed him to replace Locklear on Dec. 11. PACOM, based in Honolulu, is one of the U.S. military’s six geographic combatant commands for troop operations around the globe. Those combatant commanders, or COCOMs, are the highest-ranking officers in their chains of command. Normally, officers confirmed for senior positions are put in those jobs within weeks of confirmation. But there is no change of command ceremony scheduled for U.S. Pacific Command and no sign that Locklear has plans to retire. That means that Locklear’s future is, for now, in limbo.
While former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s ousting late last fall likely contributed to the delay in relieving Locklear from Pacific Command, his status fed speculation that the real cause of the delay was for one of two reasons. Locklear is either on the short list for a bigger job at the Pentagon, or just the opposite, that the Justice Department’s investigation into the “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal among senior Navy officers who served in the Pacific possibly meant Locklear was under investigation and thus unable to retire.
The investigation could affect any senior level officer who served in the Pacific between 2004 and 2013, according to court documents filed in the corruption case. Locklear, who served as commander of the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet, based in San Diego, between 2007 and 2009, could have been in the crosshairs of Justice Department investigators.
But it appears that Locklear is in the clear. The Justice Department investigation is not currently the cause of the delay in Locklear’s retirement and change of command, according to a senior defense official. Instead, multiple officials confirmed that the Pentagon asked Locklear to pull back his request for retirement as Defense Secretary Carter, who arrived at the Pentagon last month, considers whom to recommend for nomination to the Pentagon’s top officer job.
A senior defense official would only say that any decision about Locklear’s retirement hasn’t yet been made. “Admiral Locklear serves at the pleasure of the secretary of defense and president, and no final decision has been made about his future,” the defense official told Defense One.
Locklear isn’t the only senior officer under consideration for chairman. Marine Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford, who last year ended a tour as top commander of forces in Afghanistan, has long been thought to be a contender for the job. Dunford has only been head of the Marine Corps for about six months but is familiar to the White House as the former war commander and is therefore a viable contender.
Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, currently the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has a personal connection to senior White House officials, and is also on the short list to become chairman. He’s also thought to be someone who wants the job. In addition to Locklear, two other names are thought to be on the list: Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff and member of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Locklear’s extensive experience in the Pacific could appeal to the White House, which has made the “pivot to Asia” a central policy directive.
The sitting chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is due to retire by September. If Dempsey doesn’t retire early and if Locklear is the top contender to replace him, then Locklear would have to be given another assignment until such time as he could be nominated to replace the chairman later this year. If Locklear wasn’t given another four-star job within 60 days, under the law he would automatically revert to a two-star admiral.
Carter will need to make his recommendation to President Barack Obama in coming weeks with decisions on several other senior officer positions, including the successor to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, whose terms are expected to end in September. If Winnefeld isn’t made chairman, he would also likely retire at the end of his second, two-year appointment, which also falls in September.
Political courtesy can sometimes dictate that the chairmanship is rotated between the services in a nod to fairness among the services. But that convention has largely been ignored over the years. Of the 18 chairmen since 1949, an Army officer has held the job nine times; a naval officer has been chairman five times; an Air Force officer has occupied the job three times, and a Marine, Gen. Peter Pace, has held it once and only for two years.