WASHINGTON — Adm. Lisa Franchetti was five weeks into leading U.S. 6th Fleet when she oversaw the first-ever Tomahawk missile strike by a Virginia-class attack submarine.

Days after Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on his people in April 2018, then-President Donald Trump threatened to use military forces to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

Franchetti, then a three-star admiral still settling into her new office in Naples, Italy, was tasked by Defense Department leadership with striking Syria from European waters using naval vessels.

The target was complex: Three facilities in Damascus and near Homs were close to Russian forces and air defense systems, which the U.S. wanted to avoid hitting.

Franchetti and her 6th Fleet team both successfully used the new submarine John Warner to fire upon Syria from the Eastern Mediterranean and rearmed the boat afterward, marking two firsts.

“There were some real challenges there,” retired Adm. James Foggo, then the commander of Naval Forces Europe and Franchetti’s direct superior, told Defense News. “Afterward, we all kind of breathed a sigh of relief because all the elements of that strike mission directed by the president were met: The targets were destroyed, minimal collateral damage, didn’t bring the Russians into it, a strong message sent to Assad, and then the reload afterwards.”

Five years later — and after completing her tour as 6th Fleet commander, serving as the director for strategy, plans and policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then becoming the vice chief of naval operations — Franchetti is now President Joe Biden’s nominee for chief of naval operations.

The White House announced the nomination July 21. If confirmed by the Senate, Franchetti would be the first woman to lead the Navy or any Defense Department military service. The Coast Guard was the first U.S. armed service to be led by a female; Adm. Linda Fagan became the 27th commandant of the branch last year.

Franchetti’s nomination is likely to be sidelined by ongoing political fights on Capitol Hill over the military’s abortion access policy. The ongoing hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has stalled more than 250 senior military confirmations over the last four months, with no resolution in sight, over the Defense Department’s abortion policies.

Under rules put in place last fall, troops stationed in states where abortion is limited or illegal can be granted leave time and travel stipends to help cover the cost of moving across state lines for abortion services. Tuberville and a host of Republican lawmakers have decried the policy as illegal.

Top Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Ryan Perry confirmed the nomination in a statement and said that “she has worked across the Navy and the Joint Force with an emphasis on strategy, international engagement, and interagency collaboration, most recently serving as the Director, Strategy, Plans, and Policy, J-5.”

Biden also announced the nomination of Adm. Samuel Paparo — who in recent weeks had been rumored to be in line for the CNO post — as commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Foggo said Franchetti has the right character and experience for the job.

“She cares a lot about her people [and] you want a CNO that cares about the troops on the deckplate,” he said. “At the same time, you want a CNO that has experience in some tight, tough situations and some combat situations.”

Surface warrior and policy wonk

If a group of Navy ROTC students at a Midwestern university hadn’t decided to have a cookout one day more than four decades ago, there’s a chance Franchetti would not have embarked on a career that landed her as the nominee.

She grew up in suburban Rochester, New York, according to a 2015 Northwestern University profile of Franchetti.

Franchetti attended Northwestern’s Medill journalism school and wanted to become a reporter covering the Middle East, according to the profile. That changed in 1981 during freshman orientation, when she came upon a group of Navy ROTC students grilling out and playing football, the profile recalls.

“They said: ‘We could get you $100 a month, and maybe you could get a scholarship next year if you joined ROTC,’ ” Franchetti said in the piece. “I was whisked away to their office building on Haven Street, talked to a lieutenant who told me how great the Navy was, and next thing, I’m signed up and getting my uniform and some books. And that’s how it started.”

From there, she commissioned as a Navy officer in 1985 — five years after the first woman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, putting her at the forefront of gender integration on ships.

As such, Franchetti began her career on auxiliary ships, or those that support vessels in the naval fleet. She served on the destroyer tender Shenandoah and then the oiler Monongahela, and eventually moved onto destroyers, commanding Ross.

Franchetti became the second woman to serve as vice chief of naval operations on Sept. 2, 2022.

Retired Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, who in 2010 became the first woman to command a carrier strike group, said Franchetti’s resume makes her an ideal candidate to serve as the next chief of naval operations, regardless of gender.

Tyson told Defense News she first worked with Franchetti at the Navy’s Logistics Group Western Pacific in Singapore, and during Franchetti’s leadership of Destroyer Squadron 21.

Franchetti “is probably one of the best, well-rounded officers that we could put in as CNO. And that’s because she’s had, A, the leadership experience; B, she has had a lot of experience working with our allies and partners around the world,” Tyson said.

Later, when Tyson led U.S. 3rd Fleet and Franchetti reported to her as commander of Carrier Strike Group 9, Tyson made the unusual decision to ask Franchetti to lead two strike groups.

“I had the utmost confidence in Lisa,” she said. “Lisa is just a great person and a good leader and has the right values, characteristics, experience, training, whatever, that she’s one of those people that you can trust to get the job done.”

Foggo said Franchetti’s time as 6th Fleet commander put her leadership skills to the test: She came into the job managing ongoing naval aviation strikes against the Islamic State group, and she left in July 2020 after seeing the command through a horrific start to the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy.

By March 2020, 1,000 people a day were dying in Italy. Foggo said he and Franchetti had daily meetings to discuss how to keep their people both safe and ready for any missions.

“We were making dozens, if not hundreds, of decisions every day about how we’re going to continue to sustain the warfighting posture of this theater with Americans who are on ships, deployed or in port, or need to be ready to go and meet any contingency when we have this murderous pandemic upon us here in Italy,” he said.

Sailors and their families were scared, he added, but he and Franchetti communicated well during that time to explain their rigid policies. “Lisa was my wingman for this,” Foggo said.

Retired Vice Adm. Ron Boxall was a fellow surface warfare officer who has known Franchetti for years and led the Joint Staff’s resources directorate while Franchetti led the policy directorate.

He said her time in that job meant she “learned a lot about what went on with the [National Security Council] over [at] the White House, a lot of the inner dealings with the political-military side with [the] State Department.”

Foggo noted that, while leading 6th Fleet and Naval Forces Korea, she worked closely with allies and partners.

Breaking gender barriers

While Franchetti’s resume includes many of the same posts as other top surface warfare officers — ship captain, carrier strike group commander, fleet commander — she’s been the first woman to take on many of these roles.

“She’s a role model for a lot of young female officers, mostly surface warfare officers, and she’s always taken it as a personal mission for her to be that mentor that she never had, or that she had very few of,” Boxall said.

But he said that Franchetti, as a woman, may be uniquely positioned to help the surface warfare community and the Navy as a whole address some thorny policy issues that have thus far eluded resolution.

Speaking about retention — an issue for all the services — Boxall said it would be “refreshing” to see how a female service chief would tackle the challenge.

In a competition for people, he said, “it may be she will be able to come up with policies and confront them head on as a female officer” in a way that male officers have struggled to do.

Franchetti could lead on these issues because she’s lived them all herself. She spoke to the Northwestern University magazine about caring for sailors and maintaining a work-life balance, even with a demanding profession.

“I have my work sphere, my mom and wife sphere, and my mental and physical health sphere. When I was younger, I thought: ‘I can do all of this at the same time!’ ” Franchetti was quoted as saying.

“But when I became older, I realized, ‘OK, this week I’m going to focus on work because it’s going to be really busy,’ ” she added. “‘And next week I’m going to take a day off and go to the zoo with my family. And then next week I’m going to make sure my running is going well and get that back on track.’ A lot of rethinking and reevaluating your priorities is really important. Every day you have to think about this.”

Tyson, the first woman to command a carrier strike group, said that Biden selecting Franchetti to lead the service sends two messages to young women in the Navy or considering joining.

“First, a woman can do that; I can go as far as I want to go. And two, the Navy as an organization has the right values that they put the right person in the right place for the right reason,” Tyson said.

Foggo said he spoke to Franchetti several times about the intersection of being a naval officer and a woman.

“One of the things she said is, I learned a lot a long time ago that you do not have to sacrifice your femininity or your gender identity to be a good leader in the Navy,” Foggo explained. “In other words, you don’t have to lower your voice. You don’t have to yell. You don’t have to use bad language. You can just lead. You can be an effective leader by listening to your people, caring for your people, understanding your people, knowing something about your people.

“That’s leadership, and it has nothing to do with gender.”

Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.