By Chris Hoenig
Confirmation by the Senate is all that stands between Vice Admiral Michelle Howard and history.
Howard was nominated by President Obama on Friday to become the Navy’s new Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), the branch’s second-highest post. If confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first woman and the first Black person to serve as the Navy’s VCNO. The position also includes a promotion in rank that would make Howard the first Black female four-star admiral in Navy history.
Howard is no stranger to making history in the Navy. The 1982 Naval Academy grad became the first Black woman to command a naval ship when she took command of the USS Rushmore, an amphibious dock landing ship, in 1999. Howard, who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, also took part in tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia before taking command of Expeditionary Strike Group Two in April 2009.
As part of her command, she led Task Force 151, a part of the multinational antipiracy efforts in the North Arabian Gulf, off the coast of Somalia. Just three days after assuming the new role, Howard took charge of the Navy’s rescue mission after pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship, and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. Navy SEALs killed all but one of the pirates after several days of standoff at sea.
Howard received her master’s degree in Military Arts and Sciences from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998 and currently serves as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans & Strategy.
Upon her confirmation, Howard will replace Admiral Mark E. Ferguson, who has been nominated to lead the Navy’s forces in Europe and Africa, as well as the Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy. The VCNO reports directly to Chief Naval Officer Admiral Jonathan Greenert.
The first female four-star officer in the U.S. military wasn’t appointed until 2008, when Army General Ann E. Dunwoody took over as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. She retired in 2012. But women have made gains in senior defense positions under the Obama administration. Earlier this month, Christine Fox was nominated by the President to serve as the acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, the second-highest civilian rank at the Pentagon.
Howard’s path to confirmation was made easier earlier this year when the Senate invoked the “nuclear option,” which allows Presidential nominations to be confirmed by a simple majority rather than the 60-vote supermajority that had been required for more than 40 years. Republican filibusters, double the number seen during the Bush administration, had created a backlog of nominees awaiting Senate clearance into their new positions.