WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A surprise shakeup in the U.S. Navy’s leadership this week added to some of the biggest churn in memory at top levels of the Pentagon, where positions ranging from the secretary of defense to the heads of military branches have seen jolting turnover.
Admiral Bill Moran, who was expected to take over as the Navy’s top officer next month, announced late on Sunday he would instead retire after what Navy Secretary Richard Spencer called poor judgment regarding a professional relationship.
The decision throws the leadership of the Navy into question just weeks after the U.S. Army reshuffled its most senior jobs after its top civilian, Mark Esper, was named acting U.S. defense secretary on June 18.
Esper has become the third person to sit at the defense secretary’s desk since December. He succeeded another acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, who suddenly resigned last month. Shanahan aimed to permanently replace Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in December over policy differences with President Donald Trump.
The amount of turnover has caught Pentagon-watchers by surprise.
“It is unprecedented,” said Mark Cancian, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington.
U.S. Congress members have voiced concern that the failure to have a confirmed defense secretary would project American weakness to adversaries at a time of rising tensions with Iran.
But Cancian said military operational positions were far more steady, including at places like U.S. Central Command - which oversees U.S. troops in the Middle East and would respond to an Iran contingency.
“There isn’t a military vulnerability as a result of the turnover,” Cancian said, adding the biggest impact could be on civilian-led Pentagon policy reform efforts.
The churn is far more widespread than just the U.S. defense secretary or the Army and Navy leadership.
Heather Wilson, who had been considered a contender to replace Mattis, resigned at the end of May as U.S. Air Force secretary. Her job is being filled in an acting capacity by Matthew Donovan.
David Norquist, who had been the Pentagon’s comptroller, has been “performing the duties” of the deputy defense secretary since Shanahan replaced Mattis. Norquist has been nominated to take that job permanently.
Then there are the normal job rotations that happen periodically in the U.S. military.
For example, Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled to retire in the fall. He will be replaced by Army General Mark Milley, now the Army’s chief of staff. The vice chairman jobs are also turning over.
Later this week, Marine General David Berger is scheduled to take over as the next commandant of the Marine Corps, succeeding General Robert Neller.
In the case of Moran, the Navy is trying to smooth over the turbulence by keeping Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson in place until the U.S. Senate confirms a replacement. Such a move may need to involve Congress, however.
Not all of the details on Moran’s case have been released. In his statement, Moran said his decision to step aside was “based on an open investigation into the nature of some of my personal email correspondence over the past couple of years and for continuing to maintain a professional relationship with a former staff officer.”
Sources said the relationship in question was with a former Navy spokesman and public affairs advisor, who had been investigated over accusations of making sexual advances at a 2016 Christmas party while dressed like Santa Claus.
Reporting by Phil Stewart