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Top Marine General Steps Down With No Senate-Confirmed Successor in Place

For the first time in more than 100 years, the Marine Corps has no Senate-confirmed leader.

And despite the retirement of Commandant Gen. David Berger, there’s no inkling that the situation will change any time soon.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s seven-month hold on all senior military promotions ran head-on into the long military history of smooth leadership handovers during a pomp-filled ceremony Monday at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington.

Berger, whose four-year tour as the Marines’ top officer came to an end, was supposed to hand the reins over to Gen. Eric Smith, who has been nominated for the job. Instead, Smith will run the Corps on a temporary basis while he waits for Senate confirmation, thanks to the hold. Because he’s not confirmed, Smith will have to hold off on making any making strategic decisions for the service. He will also simultaneously serve in his current position as the Marine Corps’ No. 2.

“I know that everyone here is looking forward to the rapid confirmation of a distinguished successor to General Berger,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in brief remarks before jetting off to a NATO summit in Lithuania.

“You know, it’s been more than a century since the U.S. Marine Corps has operated without a Senate-confirmed commandant,” he continued. “Smooth and timely transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States.”

As Berger and Smith looked on, Austin sidestepped mentioning Tuberville by name. “I am also confident that the United States Senate will meet its responsibilities, and I look forward to welcoming an outstanding new commandant for our Marine Corps and to adding many other distinguished senior leaders across the joint force.”

Tuberville, an Alabama Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee member, placed the hold in protest of the Pentagon’s new policy that pays travel expenses for troops if they cannot obtain abortions in their state. He has also voiced frustration that President Joe Biden has yet to reach out to discuss the matter.

The senator’s procedural holds mean that senior officers across the military are unable to move their families to their new assignments, and in many cases are losing out on the pay raises that promotions entail.

“Our military families give up so much to support those who they serve, so they shouldn’t be weighed down with any extra uncertainty,” Austin said.

In his own remarks, Berger also swiped at the issue, saying that with Smith performing the duties of commandant until his full Senate confirmation, “the Marine Corps is in fantastic hands. And I’m with you, Mr. Secretary. We need the Senate to do their job so that we can have a sitting commandant appointed and confirmed. We need that house to be occupied. We ask the Senate to do that.”

Berger is the first of four members of the eight-member Joint Chiefs of Staff who will begin retiring this year. With the hold in place, half the chiefs, the leaders of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, along with the chair, will have no confirmed successor in the seat to replace them.

After Berger, current Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville will retire around Aug. 9, giving way to his second in command Gen. Randy George, who Biden has nominated to succeed McConville.

Current Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday will also step down around Aug. 14, to be replaced on a temporary basis by Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the vice chief of naval operations. The White House has yet to nominate a replacement for Gilday, but Austin has recommended Pacific Fleet chief Adm. Samuel Paparo to become the Navy’s next top admiral.

By far the most significant change comes this fall on Oct. 1, when Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley is required to retire. If his nominated replacement isn’t confirmed by then, he will hand over responsibilities to his vice chief, Adm. Christopher Grady, until a replacement is confirmed.

The officer tapped to replace Milley, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown, will appear for his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.