Michelle Howard is Navy's first female four-star admiral

Adm. Michelle Howard (Photo: Peter D. Lawlor/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON (ABC News/CNN) - The U.S. Navy has promoted Vice Adm. Michelle Howard to admiral, making her the first female four-star officer in the Navy's 236-year-history, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

With the promotion, the 54-year-old Howard is now the second highest ranking officer in the Navy and becomes deputy chief of naval operations, plans and strategy.

The four-star barrier is one of many Howard has shattered in her 32-year Navy career. She was one of the first women to attend the Naval Academy (graduating in 1982) and the first African-American woman to command a Navy ship (the amphibious dock landing ship Rushmore in 1999).

Howard's promotion comes nearly six years after Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody became the U.S. military's first female four-star officer.

Prior to her promotion, Howard was perhaps best known for commanding the strike force that helped coordinate the rescue of captain Richard Phillips, whose ship had been captured by Somali pirates.