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Fast Thinking May 25, 2023

Biden’s pick for joint chiefs chairman sends a message to China

By Atlantic Council


Get ready for a change in the cockpit. Today, US President Joe Biden is nominating Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown as the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. If the Senate confirms him, the Air Force chief of staff will replace Army Gen. Mark Milley, whose term ends in the fall. What can we expect from this barrier-breaking fighter pilot as he takes over the joint force? Our experts are ready for takeoff.


Memo to Beijing

  • This choice of Brown “shows how seriously the administration takes the intensification of competition with China,” Clementine tells us.
  • That’s because the joint force is now set to be led by an Air Force fighter pilot (Brown) and a Navy surface warfare officer (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady), and any “potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific [is] likely an air and maritime fight,” Clementine says.
  • Thom points out that before taking the post as Air Force chief of staff, Brown served as commander of the Pacific Air Forces. “It is in managing, and countering, Chinese territorial and geopolitical aspirations that the nomination of General Brown truly could shape the future of American defense,” Thom tells us. “For any hot scenario involving the South China Sea or any land grab for Taiwan… General Brown brings a well-practiced set of essential skills.”

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A closer look

  • Brown is set to become the second Black chairman of the joint chiefs, thirty years after Colin Powell had the role, and he would serve alongside the first Black secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin. The pick “will rightly be saluted as a milestone in shaping the face our military shows the world, and itself, in the years ahead,” Thom says. “While about 40 percent of active-duty personnel are people of color, the most prestigious leadership positions have been given most often to white guys.”
  • A deeper dive into Brown’s resumé reveals more of what he’d bring to the job, including “extensive operational experience as an F-16 pilot, meaning he’s acutely aware of the challenges of operating in contested environments like those in the Indo-Pacific and Europe,” Clementine says.
  • There’s also his more recent management experience of “manning, training, and equipping the force for different contingencies as the Air Force service chief,” Clementine notes, which requires difficult trade-offs. “He’s equipped to be chairman of the joint chiefs of staff because he’s used to making hard decisions where you have to take some risk.”

A manifesto for change

  • Brown’s 2020 Air Force strategy memo, provocatively titled “Accelerate Change or Lose,” offers a window into how the general “has sought to push the envelope on the US Air Force’s thinking,” Delharty says.
  • The strategy aims to puncture the idea that “US air dominance in a conflict is assured,” Delharty tells us. “He stresses that US adversaries are actively developing their own capabilities to directly contest and subvert perceived US strengths.”
  • And the memo shows that Brown was thinking beyond just the Air Force. “He cautions against allowing entire domains like space to become siloed to one service,” Delharty says. Brown advocates instead for the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept, which aims to analyze data across the space, air, land, sea, and cyber domains so military leaders can make decisions.
  • If one is looking at Brown’s strategies to discern how he will lead now, Delharty says they “reveal him to be someone who is always looking toward the future operating environment.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Clementine G. Starling, Thom Shanker, and Delharty Manson

Image: Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., nominated for reappointment to the grade of General and to Chief Of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. May 7, 2020. Kevin Dietsch/Pool via REUTERS