Biden has been discussing these and other iterations with Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Chief of Staff Jeff Zients in the Oval Office for the past 48 hours. Ultimately, Biden settled on a version that named Franchetti CNO and Paparo as head of the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Austin « did good, » said a US official familiar with the meeting, and the secretary has not filed a new case in the White House for his top pick.
The White House officially announced these moves on Friday, along with two other personnel changes within the Navy’s leadership structure.
The president doesn’t normally hand-pick the senior Navy officer, so Biden’s decision to tap Franchetti for the job could be seen as a rebuke to Austin. But the move hasn’t caused any strain on the relationship, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on the sidelines of the Aspen Security Forum.
« The president had a chance to sit down with the secretary of defense, and they worked together on this list, and this is the list, and it’s a good thing, » he said.
When asked if there was daylight between Biden and Austin, Sullivan said, « I don’t think there is. » Both men ended the discussion « feeling very good about where we are, » she said.
Seven Biden administration officials detailed how the president made the historic decision, most on condition of anonymity to detail a sensitive internal process.
Appointing the first female member of the Joint Chiefs is a historic move for a president who has prioritized diversity since the beginning of his administration. At the Pentagon alone, Biden appointed the first black secretary of defense (Austin), the first female deputy secretary of defense (Kathleen Hicks), and the first black officer to lead a military service (Air Force Gen. CQ Brown).
But the decision wasn’t easy. Although Franchetti, who currently holds the position of officer no. 2 in the Navy, was an early favorite for the best Navy assignment, Austin earlier this year instead recommended Paparo for the role. As commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Paparo focused on the Pentagon’s most pressing challenge: China’s growing naval power.
At the time, pundits said Austin’s decision to recommend Paparo, who was on track to lead the Indo-Pacific Command, reflected more serious thinking about how to address the growing naval imbalance in the Pacific.
But word of Austin’s recommendation leaked to the press within days, putting the secretary of defense in an awkward position. Some senior naval officials criticized the decision internally, with some speculating that Austin had submitted Paparo’s name so he could instead appoint an army officer to lead the Indo-Pacific command, according to two former defense officials familiar with the debate.
Two Defense Department officials said the decision to announce the appointments of Fanchetti, Paparo, Vice Admiral Jim Kilby to serve as deputy chief of the Navy and Vice Admiral Stephen Koehler to replace Paparo as commander of the US Pacific Fleet on Friday could also put some pressure on the Senate, where Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) put all military candidates under scrutiny for his objection to the Pentagon’s abortion policy.
Admiral John Aquilino, the current Indo-Pacom chief, is not expected to step down until April, giving the Senate months to hold a hearing and confirm Paparo and Koehler. He also allows the Navy to make all subsequent promotions up the chain of command.
One of the DOD officials also said that appointing Paparo at the same time as Franchetti cuts suggestions by some in Washington that an Army general could get the Indo-Pacom job, something the Navy has vehemently opposed as it has been a Navy billet for more than 75 years.
The president ultimately decided to go with Franchetti because of his qualifications and background, said a second US official familiar with the discussions.
Franchetti was « strongly suited for the role, and she wanted it, » the official said, noting that Paparo « is very happy to go to Indo-Pacom. »
From Austin’s perspective, there are « no hard feelings, » said a third Defense Department official familiar with the discussions.