Bush Alters Pentagon Line of Succession

President Bush yesterday changed the Pentagon’s line of succession so that the Navy Secretary would take over for the SECDEF if the latter were temporarily unable to perform his duties.

Bush Alters Pentagon Line of Succession (AP)

Who would act as President Bush’s defense secretary if Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld were to resign, become disabled, die or be temporarily absent due to an overseas trip, such as on the one he began Thursday? For years the answer was, quite naturally, the deputy defense secretary. But the answer had to change Thursday because of a simple, inconvenient fact: There is no deputy defense secretary.

There is, however, a Navy secretary. That post is held by Gordon England, who also happens to be Bush’s nominee to replace Paul Wolfowitz as deputy defense secretary. But England’s nomination has been stalled for weeks due to a dispute over whether England must buy insurance on the pension he earned before joining the government.

On May 13, the day Wolfowitz left his defense job, Bush designated England to be the acting deputy secretary. England also retained his Navy job. The presidential executive order spelling out the line of succession to act as defense secretary says no one in that line can become the acting secretary if he holds his own position in an “acting” capacity. So, with Rumsfeld having left Thursday on an extended trip to Asia and Europe, the only way he could have England fill in for him legally was to have Bush issue a directive that altered the line of succession.

That is just what the president did.

Presumably, this order will be rescinded once England or someone else is approved as Deputy Secretary.

Indeed, the natural order of things would be to have the Secretary of the Army take over. Not simply because the Army is the superior service, but because it is senior. The Army has existed continuously since the War for Independence; the Navy was allowed to go away for years. The Secretary of War was in charge of all military forces. When the country decided it needed some ships, the then-Secretary suggested the creation of a separate Navy Department and Navy Secretary, which was done in 1798.

It’s notable too that the Secretary of the Army is a much older position than Secretary of Defense. The War Secretary became the Army Secretary after the National Security Act of 1947, which created both the SECDEF and a separate Air Force.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Richard Gardner says:

    Minor issue, the Secretary of the Navy is also in charge of the Marine Corp, which is the senior service.

  2. DC Loser says:

    The Army is the senior service. The Marines are still part of the Navy. Note that when the four services march in parade, the order is Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Actually, the Army is slightly older than the Marine Corps, too. The Army birthday is 14 June 1775; the USMC’s is November 10, 1775.

  4. Scott in CA says:

    The hell with it. Just go back to calling it the War Department. Sounds much more serious than “Defense” Department.