WASHINGTON — Gen. Charles Q. Brown will become the first black service member to lead an American military branch after lawmakers on Tuesday voted to make him the Air Force’s 22nd chief of staff.
Brown, who is currently the commander of Pacific Air Forces, was confirmed for the post in an unanimous 98-0 vote. He will replace Gen. Dave Goldfein as the Air Force’s top general.
The Senate’s confirmation of Brown comes just days after Defense News learned of a procedural hold on his nomination by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Sullivan had delayed Brown’s nomination from moving forward due to questions about the KC-46 aerial-refueling tanker, which Sullivan wants to be based in Alaska.
On June 3, Sullivan confirmed he had dropped the hold, allowing Brown’s nomination to proceed to the Senate floor.
About a half hour before the floor vote, President Donald Trump tweeted that Brown’s confirmation marked a “historic day in America" and that he was excited to work with him.
Brown is best known throughout the Air Force for the extensive time he spent in leadership roles in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
Before being named as head of PACAF in 2018, Brown was deputy commander of U.S. Central Command for two years. From 2015-2016, he served as U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s combined force air component commander, overseeing air operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria as well as terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Before that, he was director of operations, strategic deterrence and nuclear integration for U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Brown will be sworn in as chief of staff at a time when the Air Force hopes to realign itself against the threats of a rising China and resurgent Russia. Under Goldfein’s leadership, the service sought to ramp up investments in key areas like space, command and control, and advanced munitions — sometimes at the price of near-term readiness, with Goldfein open to the retirement of existing platforms.
In responses to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of its confirmation hearing in early May, Brown acknowledged that making those trade-offs could become even more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting constraints on the nation’s economy and budget.
“As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, I see an emerging challenge where our strategic aspirations and our resources available may be on divergent paths, driving future tough choices,” he said. “As we review strategic objectives and priorities in the post-COVID-19 period, and continue the journey we started to build the Air Force we need to align with the [National Defense Strategy], we have many constraints and restraints that could hamper our ability to achieve our objectives as originally envisioned.”
Brown’s confirmation also comes as the country finds itself embroiled in civil unrest and violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On June 5, PACAF posted a video where Brown talked about Floyd’s death and his own experiences as an African American serving in the Air Force.
“I’m thinking about the immense expectations that come with this historic nomination, particularly through the lens of current events plaguing our nation,” he said. “I’m thinking about how I may have fallen short in my career, and will I continue to fall short living up all those expectations. I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope but also comes with a heavy burden. I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.”
Brown said his own experiences in the Air Force “didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.” He sometimes felt pulled between two worlds, each with their own perspective and views. He recalled feeling like he had to represent black airmen by working twice as hard, and having heard insensitive racial comments during his career.
“I’m thinking about my Air Force career, where I was often the only African American in my squadron, or as a senior officer, the only African American in the room. 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?’ ”
Brown closed by saying he has considered how the Air Force can make institutional improvements so that all airmen can serve in a professional environment where they can reach their full potential. Part of that, he said, would mean leading conversations about racism inside the Air Force and listening to airmen’s perspectives about how to make the service more diverse and inclusive.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.