President Joe Biden is set to announce on Thursday that he has picked Gen. C.Q. Brown, the Air Force’s top officer and the first Black person to lead any branch of the military, as his next Joint Chiefs chair, according to a senior administration official.
If confirmed, Brown would become the first Black Joint Chiefs chair in 30 years, since the late Colin Powell held the position in the George H.W. Bush administration. It would also be the first time in the nation’s history that the Pentagon’s top military and civilian positions are held by African Americans.
Brown would replace Army Gen. Mark Milley, whose four-year term as Joint Chiefs chair ends this fall. The senior administration official was granted anonymity to disclose the nomination ahead of the announcement on Thursday.
Biden decided to tap Brown for the position over his main competitor, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, earlier this month, as POLITICO first reported. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recommended that the president choose Brown as chair, according to the official.
The president will make the announcement during an event in the White House Rose Garden at 1:45 p.m. on Thursday, the official said.
As chair, Brown would become the top military adviser to a president who must balance the need to support Ukraine’s existential fight against Russia with the growing threat from China, while also guarding against the actions of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. He will also have to defend a force from Republican lawmakers who accuse the department of adopting liberal personnel policies, and respond to a recruitment crisis not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Rep. Don Davis (D-N.C.), the first Black graduate of the Air Force Academy elected to the House, said the historic pick sends a signal to the next generation that anyone can rise to the highest ranks of the military, regardless of the color of their skin.
“This is very much part of the American dream, where our armed services reflect America,” Davis said. “This is part of a story. This will inspire so many young people.”
The senior administration official said Milley has been a “close and trusted adviser” to Biden over the past two and a half years, and the president has valued “his directness, his combat experience and his personal dedication to America’s men and women in uniform.”
“During the selection process, President Biden prioritized finding a successor who can carry on that work and provide strong, steady leadership and wise counsel,” said the official. “In General Brown, the president knows he will likewise benefit from a wealth of military experience, shaped in both peacetime and war.”
The Senate voted unanimously to confirm Brown to be Air Force chief of staff in 2020, but his confirmation likely won’t be as smooth this time around. Brown is joining roughly 200 other senior Pentagon nominees whose nominations are being held up by Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville over the department’s abortion travel policy. Tuberville’s blockade is not likely to lift anytime soon.
Those who know him say Brown is the right man for the job — regardless of his race. A fighter pilot with deep field experience in theaters across the globe, he commanded troops in the Pacific, as chief of Pacific Air Forces, a job that experts say makes him the best person to take on the role at a time when China is seen as the military’s primary threat.
“Especially helpful will be his deep knowledge and experience in the Indo-Pacific theater — the key to this ‘decisive decade,’” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director.
Brown also commanded troops in the Middle East, as head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, and was serving in Europe when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. At the time, he was director of operations for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration at U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He has more than 3,000 flying hours under his belt, including combat missions to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
“He’s one of the best-prepared incoming chairmen we’ve had in a long time,” said retired Adm. Mark Montgomery, a former policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “C.Q. checks all the boxes.”
In sharp contrast to his loquacious predecessor, Brown is the rare fighter pilot who listens more than he talks, according to his friends and mentors. Those who know him say he is quiet and deliberate, a careful note-taker who absorbs all the facts then takes decisive action.
It’s these traits that make Brown the right person for the job of top military adviser to the president, said retired Gen. David Goldfein, Brown’s predecessor as the Air Force chief of staff.
“When he does speak, everybody leans forward,” he said. “While he may not be the one that is going to speak the loudest or the most, he is going to be the one in the room that has the most to say.”
Besides the other firsts, Brown would also be the first Air Force officer to become Joint Chiefs chair since retired Gen. Richard Myers, who held the position until 2005 — an almost 20-year drought. In that time, two officers from the Marine Corps, two from the Army and one from the Navy have served in the role.
“I don’t know of anybody that surpasses him as far as his resume is concerned,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Brown is considered unflappable in a crisis, a trait that his mentors and peers say makes him the right person to be the nation’s top military officer at a time when the Pentagon is confronting challenges on multiple fronts.
When terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Brown was an F-16 instructor pilot stationed at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. That night, the squadron was ordered to stand alert, ready to shoot down another attacker. The other young pilots were nervous for a mission they’d never flown before — but not Brown, according to his peers.
“We needed the young pilots to act responsibly if they were intercepting an airliner or some other airplane, because we didn’t know what was going on,” said retired Lt. Gen. William Rew, then-commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw. “We needed cool heads to prevail, and C.Q. had the coolest of heads.”
But the San Antonio native does not shy away from speaking his mind when the moment calls for it. In a remarkable move for a high-ranking military officer, Brown weighed in on the racial unrest roiling the country in June, 2020.
In a deeply personal video that aired days before the Senate was to vote on his confirmation to be Air Force chief of staff, Brown spoke about his own experience navigating racial tensions in the military.
“I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suits, with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?’” Brown said in the five-minute video, staring straight at the camera. “I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination.”
Retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, the former commander of U.S. Forces Korea who was the eighth African American to achieve the rank of four-star general, said the video rang true to his own experience. He hopes Brown’s appointment will send a positive message to young Black officers rising through ranks where diversity is often still a challenge.
“I appreciated his honesty, his candor. He was truly speaking from his heart, from his gut. And I can relate to everything he said,” said Brooks, who worked with Brown at the Pentagon and at Central Command. “Because that is the journey, sometimes things don’t feel quite equal, sometimes you have to jump over more hurdles.”
Brown has also been outspoken about sending fighter jets to Ukraine. He reportedly irked his bosses when he told Reuters last summer that the U.S. was beginning to look at potentially training Ukrainian air force pilots. On Friday, Biden informed the other G-7 leaders that the U.S. was ready to support the training program.
Brown “has the courage to speak truth to power, when it may not be what the commander in chief or the secretary of defense or the Congress wants to hear,” Goldfein said.
Brown’s restrained public persona masks a competitive streak, said retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the former commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa who served with Brown in a number of positions. Brown loves to work out and gets fired up about sports. In private, he enjoys breaking out his smoker, along with the occasional glass of red wine.
“While he may be outwardly reserved, don’t kid yourself: there’s a fire in his belly,” Harrigian said.
But he’s also humble — another trait that’s scarce among fighter pilots, Rew said. When he speaks to you, he’s really listening, not looking around the room to see if anyone more important might be nearby.
“You are never gonna see C.Q. pounding his chest,” Rew said. “That’s not his style.”
Clyburn acknowledged the historic nature of Brown’s appointment if he joins Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, but noted that: “Nobody is concerned about it if both of them are white.”
“If you talk about merit and ability, the only thing significant about that is that it’s taken this long for us to get there,” he said.
Brooks said the fact that Brown is the second African-American chair is “great news.”
“You never want to be the last if you are also the first,” Brooks said. “We want to see seconds and thirds and fourths in a nation that is as diverse as this is.”
The Air Force chief, who if confirmed would leave his job a year early, comes from a long line of military veterans. He is the grandson of Army Master Sgt. Robert E. Brown Jr., who led a segregated unit in World War II, and the nephew of Army Col. Robert E. Brown III.
In high school, Brown wasn’t interested in attending a military academy. But his father, artillery officer and Vietnam War veteran Army Col. Charles Q. Brown, Sr., encouraged him to apply for a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship at Texas Tech University. He fell in love with flying after a backseat ride in a T-37 trainer during ROTC summer camp, and hasn’t stopped since.
“When I’m flying, I put my helmet on, my visor down, my mask up,” Brown said in a 2021 Air Force recruiting ad, to interspersed footage of fighter jets. “You don’t know who I am, whether I’m African American, Asian American, Hispanic, white, male or female.”
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