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Defense secretary passes over woman considered front-runner for Navy's top job

Adm. Samuel Paparo’s nomination as chief of naval operations went to the White House a week ago. Adm. Lisa Franchetti would have been the first woman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a surprise move, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has recommended that Adm. Samuel Paparo become the Navy’s highest-ranking officer instead of a woman widely believed to have been the front-runner, several senior defense officials said.

Adm. Lisa Franchetti.
Adm. Lisa Franchetti.U.S. Navy
Adm. Samuel Paparo.
Adm. Samuel Paparo.U.S. Navy

Paparo’s nomination as chief of naval operations went to the White House about a week ago but President Joe Biden has not yet signed it, the officials said.

Adm. Lisa Franchetti had been considered the leading contender for the chief’s job since becoming the vice chief of naval operations, the No. 2 officer in the Navy, last fall. She would have been the first female service member to hold the job and the first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A woman is running the Coast Guard, but she is not a member of the Joint Chiefs.

Paparo, the commander of Pacific Fleet, was expected to become the next commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, as is common. He is one of the top operational leaders in the Navy facing the challenges against China and was expected to bring his expertise to Indo-Pacific Command at a time when China is a top Biden administration priority.

Paparo was expected to expand on his expertise in the region as commander of Indo-Pacific Command rather than move to the Pentagon. If he becomes head of the Navy, he will have to shift focus to manning, equipping and training, with less focus on operations. 

Austin made the recommendation to pass over Franchetti in favor of Paparo, the officials said. 

“This is a presidential decision,” said Rear Adm. Ryan Perry, the Navy’s top spokesperson. “The United States Navy has several highly qualified senior leaders, and it would be inappropriate to speculate which leader the president will nominate to serve as the next chief of Naval Operations.”

The Pentagon and the White House National Security Council declined to comment.

The decision to pass over Franchetti the same week that the U.S. military celebrates the 75th anniversary of women joining the armed forces may not sit well with some inside the Pentagon who were advocating for the Joint Chiefs to finally have a female officer.

Franchetti has both operational and policy experience. She commanded two strike groups in the Pacific, served as commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO in Europe and commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Korea, and held various roles in the Pentagon, including her current job as the vice chief. 

“She is every bit as qualified as the previous few CNOs,” one senior defense official said.