Opinion: Ill effects of Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s abortion protest are overblown

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) listens during a hearing to examine the nomination of USAF General David Allvin for reappointment to the grade of general and to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Since February, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has blocked all senior military promotions requiring Senate confirmation to protest the Pentagon's policy of allowing military personnel to travel to get abortions if the state they live in does not allow them — resulting because the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling overturned its own previous opinion in Roe v. Wade that guaranteed nationwide abortions.

Tuberville is enjoying his celebrity status as another "never back down" type of guy a little too much. And he is taking his superficial Republican anti-wokeism too far by inserting it into military affairs. Yet the predictions of catastrophic consequences for U.S. national security for Tuberville's likely symbolic protest are wildly overblown by some members of both parties.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., vaguely railed that Tuberville is "prepared to burn the military down" with his holdup on senior military promotions. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a hawkish Republican candidate for president, was a bit more specific before launching her own "national security" histrionics against Tuberville's actions. Haley complained to Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, "We do not have a chief of staff of the Army for a first time in 200 years. More than 300 vacancies. It's a mess." Haley said Hewitt should contact Tuberville "and ask him to stop screwing up the military because we're on the brink of a conflict with China and we cannot have this."

The desired public implication that Tuberville's critics want to leave is that the giant American military service bureaucracies have ground to a halt with some senior leadership positions temporarily remaining unfilled, thus impeding the readiness to deal with any immediate armed contingencies that arise. Yet my long experience working with the Department of Defense in one capacity or another is that the services adapt to run on autopilot quite successfully with acting senior officials for a time. In fact, they regularly do so when Senate confirmations are usually slow between transitioning presidential administrations. A catastrophic loss of military readiness is unlikely to occur.

In fact, despite the public grousing about Tuberville, behind the scenes, members of Congress should note the minor real-world effects of Tuberville's grandstanding, thus turning a superficial anti-woke protest into meaningful reforms of the unwieldy military bureaucracies by examining whether some of the bloated numbers of senior officer positions could be pruned.

Since World War II, the ratio of flag officers — generals and admirals — to the enlisted ranks has ballooned to nearly the highest in modern military history. Republican congressional leaders are already on the right track in considering slimming down the number of flag officers in the services — currently more than 900. In 1965, the year of the escalation of the Vietnam War, such generals and admirals were only 0.048% of the total force; in 2018, it had climbed to 0.07% of the force. During World War II, there was one general or admiral for every 6,000 troops; now, it is one flag officer for 1,400 troops.

Although the budget savings of eliminating the salaries of retiring flag officers would be modest, these legislative leaders realize something that the critics of doing so don't: Inefficiencies of bloated top-heavy service bureaucracies regularly undermine military readiness and waste too much of the almost $850 billion annual military budget a lot more than some temporarily unfilled senior positions. However, a more considered and systematic examination of whether many of these senior positions are still needed is required, not Tuberville's anti-woke grandstanding by freezing appointments just because the positions happen to be vacant at the current time.

Even these Republican leaders, however, cannot resist including in their arguments that the U.S. military is too "woke," meaning that it pays too much attention to having diversity, inclusion and vaccinations in the force. Again, this superficial criticism has little real effect on the readiness of the most dominant military in world history. What would improve military readiness much more is to improve the speed of decision-making through the ranks in any emergency by whittling down the excessive layers of flag officers to more historical levels.

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of "War and the Rogue Presidency."