Biden taps ‘butt-kicking’ fighter pilot Gen. CQ Brown for Joint Chiefs chairman
President Joe Biden on Thursday officially nominated Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, the Air Force chief of staff and a career fighter pilot with extensive command experience, as his choice to serve as the nation’s next top military officer.
In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, Biden highlighted Brown’s intellect, his experience commanding troops in Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, and his even-keeled manner as he formally introduced the general as the nominee to become the 21st chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brown, who is the first African American to lead a U.S. military service, appeared alongside the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during the announcement.
“Gen. Brown is a proud butt-kicking American airman — first and always. He’s gained respect across every [military] service from those who have seen him in action and have come to depend on his judgment,” Biden said. “Gen. Brown has built a reputation across the force as an unflappable and highly effective leader — as someone who creates an environment of teamwork, trust and executes with excellence.”
If confirmed, Brown, 60, would replace the often-brash Army Gen. Mark Milley, who has served as Joint Chiefs chairman since October 2019 and is slated to retire in October. He would become the second Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The late Army Gen. Colin Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though he never served as Army chief of staff.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation’s top military officer charged with advising the president and defense secretary on military and national security issues. While the chairman is not in the direct chain of command and is not charged with commanding troops, he is instrumental in shaping Pentagon policy and planning U.S. military operations worldwide.
In Biden’s remarks Thursday, he also highlighted Brown’s composed nature by sharing the story of how the general’s F-16 caught fire during a training mission over Florida in 1991.
“CQ had to eject at more than 300 miles an hour, landing in the Everglades,” Biden said. “I’ll tell you what — he was back in the cockpit the next week.”
Brown is a 1984 graduate of Texas Tech University and was commissioned through the school’s ROTC program. He has commanded a fighter squadron, the Air Force Weapons School, two fighter wings, and he has served as an adviser to past top Air Force uniformed and civilian leaders. He also served as the No. 2 general for U.S. Central Command from July 2016 to July 2018, before taking command of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, his last assignment before becoming Air Force chief of staff, according to his biography.
He has a longstanding relationship with Austin, the first Black Pentagon leader, that dates back to Austin’s days in an Army uniform. The former four-star general told reporters Thursday that Brown was a good choice for Joint Chiefs chairman.
“He is an incredibly capable and professional officer,” Austin said at the Pentagon ahead of the White House ceremony. “What he brings to the table — to any table — is that professionalism, and that deep experience in war fighting — and I have personal knowledge of that.”
Brown was easily confirmed to his job leading the Air Force in a 98-0 Senate vote, but he could face some opposition in his next vote after making diversity and equity central issues while leading the service — a topic that has rankled some conservative Republicans in Congress.
After George Floyd’s killing in 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a nationwide reckoning on race, Brown released a video speaking frankly about the impact of racism on his military life.
“I'm thinking about some of the insensitive comments made by others without awareness,” the general said in the five-minute video in which he details often being the only Black officer in his units. “I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member, ‘Are you a pilot?’ ”
Biden referenced the video in his remarks Thursday, calling Brown “a fearless leader” for providing his unvarnished experiences for the world to see.
“It took real backbone to strike a chord not only with our military members, but with Americans all across the country,” the president said.
But a vote on Browns confirmation could be delayed. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has blocked votes on top level military nominations in an unprecedented move over his objections to a Pentagon policy that provides travel money for reproductive health care, including abortions, to troops stationed in states that have recently banned abortion access.
Milley, who endorsed Brown’s nomination on Thursday, implored “a speedy confirmation” by senators.
“He’s a great officer,” Milley said. “In my personal view, he has all the knowledge, skills and attributes to do this job, and he has the appropriate demeanor and he’s got a great chemistry with the president, the [defense secretary] and others.”
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee applauded Brown’s nomination in statements issued Thursday.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee’s chairman, labeled Brown a “trailblazer.”
“I look forward to convening a confirmation hearing to discuss his vision for addressing key challenges and leading our military into the future,” Reed said. “America needs highly qualified, effective leaders like Gen. Brown. I hope my colleagues in the Senate will review and consider this nomination based on the merits.”
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said Brown was “exceptionally qualified” to be chairman.
“I have … 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,” Wicker said.
Brown’s experience commanding all Air Force troops in the Pacific in recent years will prove critical to his role as chairman as the Pentagon has made countering Chinese military ambitions in the region its top priority. As Air Force chief of staff, Brown also has been instrumental in efforts to train and supply Ukrainian forces in their fight against Russian invaders.
He has also made modernization, especially in the nuclear enterprise, a top priority for the Air Force. The service is now working to upgrade the two aging legs of the nuclear triad that it is responsible for — the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles program and its long-range, nuclear-capable bomber fleet.
Most importantly, Brown has a long reputation for providing leaders unedited feedback, Biden said.
“I'll be able to rely on him as a thoughtful, deliberate leader who is unafraid to speak his mind, someone who will deliver an honest message that needs to be heard, and will always do the right thing when it's hard,” he said. “That's the No. 1 quality a president needs in the chairman.”
Brown, when he was sworn in as Air Force chief of staff in 2020, said he never intended to make the service a career, and he could have never foreseen rising so high in the military.
He almost didn’t join the military, he said. Brown was set to quit the ROTC program at Texas Tech after just one semester, but his father, a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam, talked him into staying in the program. Even after commissioning into the service in 1994, Brown said he only planned to serve four years.
But Brown fell in love with flying fighter jets. During his career, he’s flown some 20 different airplanes and helicopters, primarily F-16 Fighting Falcons, racking up some 3,000 flight hours including about 130 hours in combat, according to his service biography.
“I can think of no one better suited and … more qualified to lead our force through the challenges and responsibilities ahead,” Biden said. “And I look forward to having you on my side, advising me as the next chairman — helping keep the American people safe.”