WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced he has nominated Air Force Gen. CQ Brown to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a brief ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden.
“Gen. Brown is a warrior, descended from a proud line of warriors,” Biden said, referencing Brown’s Vietnam veteran father as well as his grandfather, who led a segregated unit in World War II.
Brown’s command roles in the Indo-Pacific region, the Middle East and Europe give him “an unmatched firsthand knowledge of our operational theaters, and a strategic vision to understand how they all work together to ensure security for the American people,” Biden said, flanked by Brown, Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“While Gen. Brown is a proud, butt-kickin’ American airman, first and always, he’s also been an operational leader in the joint force,” Biden said. “He gained respect across every service from those who have seen him in action, and have come to depend on his judgment. More than that, he gained the respect of our allies and partners around the world, who regard Gen. Brown as a trusted partner and a top-notch strategist.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Brown — who has served as the Air Force’s chief of staff for nearly three years — will succeed Army Gen. Mark Milley as the military’s top uniformed officer.
Milley sat in the front row of the audience at the ceremony, next to Brown’s wife Sharene. Biden, wearing his signature aviator shades, thanked Milley and his family for their years of service.
“As chairman, you’ve led our military through the most complex security environment our world has faced in a long, long time,” Biden said. “We’ve strengthened our alliances from NATO to the Indo-Pacific, and built new partnerships like AUKUS [the trilateral defense agreement between the United States, U.K., and Australia]. ... You’ve helped set our country and our military on a course that will put us in the strongest possible position to succeed in the years ahead.”
And Biden saluted Sharene Brown for her work to improve the quality of life for military families as part of her “Five and Thrive” initiative.
As chairman, Brown would advise the president on military matters, including the potential defense of Taiwan if China invades and NATO’s effort to support Ukraine in its fight to repel Russia’s invasion. He would also regularly consult with top military leaders across all services to gather their thoughts on strategy, operations and budgets, so he could present a range of options to Biden.
The Senate voted unanimously to confirm Brown’s nomination to become Air Force chief of staff in June 2020, which made him the first Black person to head a branch of the U.S. military, and he is expected to be easily confirmed as the nation’s top military officer. However, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has placed a hold on Defense Department nominations over the department’s decision to provide leave and travel services so troops can obtain abortion services, which could create a stumbling block for Brown’s confirmation.
During his three years as Air Force chief of staff, Brown has focused on overhauling the service, a plan he dubbed “Accelerate Change or Lose,” which has also become something of a mantra for him. This effort involves reshaping the service’s structure, changing how the service prepares for potential conflicts with major adversaries like China and Russia, and divesting old and outdated air frames like the A-10 Warthog, E-3 Sentry and older F-15C fighters, which he and other Air Force leaders say would be unsuited for future high-end wars.
Biden singled out Brown’s Accelerate Change or Lose strategy as exactly what the military needs.
“General, you’re right on,” Biden said. “To keep the American people safe, prosperous and secure, we have to move fast and adapt quickly. We have to maintain a combat-credible force capable of deterring and defeating any potential threat.”
A retired general officer familiar with the discussions told Air Force Times Biden strongly considered both Brown and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger for the job, but ultimately chose Brown.
Brown would be the second Black person to serve as Joint Chiefs chairman, with the first being Army Gen. Colin Powell under President George H.W. Bush. It would be the first time in the nation’s history that both the top civilian and uniformed leaders in the Defense Department are Black, as Austin is the first Black secretary of defense.
An ‘unflinching’ video
In June 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and days before the Senate voted to confirm him as chief of staff, Brown made an emotional video in which he spoke about Floyd’s death and his own experiences as a Black person in the military. The video went viral, and observers say Brown’s frank talk helped spark conversations about racism and injustice in the military community.
Biden said that “unflinching” testimonial shows Brown is “unafraid to speak his mind [and] will deliver an honest message that needs to be heard, and will always do the right thing when it’s hard.”
Biden said the video also showed “his deep love of our country, to which he’s dedicated his entire adult life.”
Republicans praised Brown’s nomination and called on him to remain out of politics should the Senate nominate him for the post.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Brown as an “exceptionally qualified officer” and said he should maintain a “laser focus on readiness, deterrence and warfighting instead of politics.”
“I have also known him to be a thoughtful advocate of accelerating innovation so that our armed services can be ready to defend our country and deter potential threats, especially those from the Chinese Communist Party,” said Wicker.
House defense appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said Brown “must be focused on maintaining our edge in the air, land, sea and space and not be distracted by other issues that don’t ultimately result in the enhanced lethality of U.S. forces.”
Calvert praised Brown’s tenure as Air Force chief, noting he understood “we must innovate and equip our warfighters with the next generation of resources to secure our nation” in order to “surpass the technological advancements of China and other adversaries.”
Ties around the world
In a Wednesday interview with Defense News, retired Gen. Dave Goldfein — Brown’s predecessor as Air Force chief of staff — said Brown’s skills, honed throughout his nearly four decades in uniform, and the bonds he’s created with counterparts across the world will be vital as the United States faces multiple challenges.
“When it comes to … Ukraine or China or Korea or Iran, or you name the challenges that he will face, he has built enough relationships and enough credibility that he can walk into the room and, in his very thoughtful way, provide his military advice and assessment of the risks involved, allowing the president and the senior civilian leadership to make the most informed decisions,” Goldfein said.
Since he first met Brown in the mid-1990s — when Brown was aide-de-camp to then-chief of staff Gen. Ron Fogleman and Goldfein was aide to the commander of Allied Air Forces Southern Europe in Naples, Italy — Brown has always been a deep thinker and a quiet consensus builder, Goldfein said. Those traits will serve him well as he advises Biden on the nation’s most pressing military matters.
“He really thinks things through,” Goldfein said. “He’s not usually the most vocal at the table, and he’s certainly not the loudest, but he always has the most to say. … When he spoke in a meeting, everybody was leaning forward, listening, taking notes.”
Goldfein pointed to the 2019 Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii as an example of Brown’s skill in bringing together people from different backgrounds and with different interests to build common ground.
During that conference, attended by air chiefs from about 18 nations, then-PACAF Commander Brown set up a series of small panel discussions that brought every attending nation’s air chief to the table. During those talks, Goldfein said, the “chemistry” between Brown and the other Pacific nations’ air chiefs was evident.
“What struck me was the relationships that he’d invested in across the region, which were on display during the entire conference,” Goldfein said. “It was relationships built on trust, it was relationships built on confidence in each other, it was relationships built on how he valued each of them and their participation and their input. Because he’s such an incredible listener, they knew that he was paying attention to everything they had to say.”
Brown’s breadth of experience in some of the world’s most vital military theaters is unparalleled among general officers today, Goldfein said — particularly his time commanding the nation’s air forces in the Pacific and the Middle East, and serving as a senior leader in Europe.
“I don’t know that we’re going to find an officer who has had more time in joint operations, in every theater, than CQ Brown,” Goldfein said.
The kind of relationship-building Brown excelled at during the 2019 Pacific conference will be vital in his new role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Goldfein said. Brown has already built up a considerable contact list of top leaders around the world, such as ambassadors, top defense ministers and heads of state, during his last three years commanding the Air Force, Goldfein said. He predicted that as chairman, Brown will be able to quickly form ties with international leaders he doesn’t yet know.
“When there’s a crisis and you need to talk to one of your counterparts, that’s the worst time to start building a relationship,” Goldfein said. “You want to build on relationships that you’ve already invested in. … He’s going to bring relationships — across the highest levels of government — with some of the most important countries we ever have to deal with.”
Rachel S. Cohen contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.