WASHINGTON — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown avoided setting off any major fireworks during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maintaining his reputation as a nonpartisan officer.
But he forcefully laid out the impact that a blanket Senate hold on hundreds of senior military confirmations, including his own, is having on the readiness of the joint force.
“We have strong deputies, but at the same time they don’t have the same level of experience going forward,” Brown told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In addition to the senior officers, there’s a whole chain of events that goes down to our junior officers. And that has an impact.”
Brown said the holds on senior military officers instated by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., also prevents junior officers from moving up the chain of command, hindering their careers. He noted that if the Senate doesn’t promote the senior officers, they remain in their current positions, “blocking the spot for someone else.”
Additionally, he said it impacts the families of staffers and junior officers as well, preventing them for planning their futures amid uncertainty over where they’ll be based.
“Whether it’s school, whether it’s employment, whether it’s the fact that they already sold their home because they thought they were going to move and are now living in temporary quarters, that creates a challenge,” said Brown. “We will lose talent. The spouse network is alive and well, and the spouses will compare notes.”
Tuberville started a blanket hold on senior military confirmations in February, demanding that the Pentagon rescind its new policy providing paid travel leave for troops to travel to receive abortion services if they’re stationed in states where it’s no longer legal. He was not in the room when Brown outlined the impact his military holds have had.
Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to devote limited floor time to confirming otherwise non-controversial military nominees usually confirmed unanimous consent, even for senior leaders like Brown. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., noted on Monday that it would take 84 days to confirm all 253 promotions held up on the Senate floor if senators did nothing but vote on them for eight hours a day.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who chairs the military personnel panel, noted that Tuberville’s hold will soon affect approximately 650 military confirmations, significantly lengthening that 84-day timeline.
‘Nonpartisan’ aims as chairman
President Biden in May nominated Brown, 60, to be the nation’s next top military officer. If confirmed, he would succeed current Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley.
During his hearing, Brown was praised by most senators for his experience and leadership ability, and he appeared to have broad support on the committee.
Brown stressed to senators how important it is to maintain the military’s distance from politics in his hearing, and pledged to set a personal example of remaining nonpartisan if confirmed as chairman. Still, he could not avoid questions on several controversies that have ensnared the armed forces in recent years, including racial and diversity issues and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Brown said he would expect the rest of the force to exhibit the same nonpartisanship he promised to demonstrate — but he also asked civilian leaders not to pull the military into political debates.
“We need to stay out of politics, and stay nonpartisan, nonpolitical,” Brown said. “And at the same time, advocate that our civilian leadership not to bring us into political situations.”
A simmering debate over whether diversity and inclusion initiatives were appropriate in the military erupted late in the hearing, when Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., began his questioning of Brown by asking, “Do we have too many White officers in the Air Force?”
Schmitt criticized Brown for signing onto an Aug. 9, 2022, memo titled “Officer Source of Commission Applicant Pool Goals,” that updated the service’s racial, gender and ethnicity demographic goals for the pool of officer applicants.
That memo, which was also signed by Air Force Sec. Frank Kendall, then-Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones, and Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, called those applicant goals “aspirational,” and called for Air Education and Training Command and the U.S. Air Force Academy to come up with diversity and inclusion outreach plans to achieve those goals.
Schmitt pointed to the memo’s goal of having an applicant pool that is 67.5% White, and characterized it as saying that is what the service’s population of officers should be. This, Schmitt said, would amount to “a reduction, essentially, of about 9% of the White officers.”
Brown said the memo was on application goals, not what the actual makeup of the officer corps should be, and that the percentages were based on nationwide demographics.
The Air Force was not advocating for racial quotas, Brown told Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., which are against the military’s policy.
During the hearing, Brown said the Air Force’s efforts to improve diversity are important to give airmen of all backgrounds a chance at excelling.
“All they want is a fair opportunity to perform,” Brown said. “And by providing that fair opportunity, they do not want to be advantaged or disadvantaged or discounted based on their background.”
In his own roles as a fighter pilot, instructor and commandant of the Air Force Weapons School, Brown said that he wanted to earn all his advancements based on his own merits, not because of his background.
“I didn’t want to be the best African-American F-16 pilot,” Brown said. “I wanted to be the best F-16 pilot.”
At the same time, he said, the Air Force needed to make an effort to reach out to multiple populations across the nation, so they know what opportunities are out there, while not compromising on their qualifications or merit.
“Young people only aspire to be what they know about,” Brown said. “If they don’t know anything about the military, and we don’t outreach to them, we may miss some tremendous talent. But they’ve got to be qualified, because we’re a merit-based organization.”
And with the military facing serious recruiting challenges, Brown said it will be even more important for officials such as himself to “reconnect with the nation” and talk about the opportunities military service can provide.
Some Republican senators also pressed Brown on what he would do as chairman to restore to service about 8,000 troops who were kicked out of the military for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Brown indicated an openness to allowing some of those discharged troops to reapply and return to service on a case-by-case basis, as long as the vaccine refusal was the only negative mark on their record. But he noted that, as chairman, he would not be in the chain of command to make such decisions, and could only offer his advice to leaders of the individual services.
Schmitt said allowing those troops to reapply isn’t good enough, and said they should be reinstated with rank and back pay.
Lessons from Ukraine, and modernizing
Brown also endorsed multiyear procurement as a means to bolster munitions production, pointing to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 budget request for multiyear authorizations to buy items like the Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System. He argued that doing so would “help provide predictability to the defense-industrial base, to their supply chains and to their workforce.”
He noted that the war in Ukraine has “exposed” underlying issues in the defense-industrial base, such as the ability to surge munitions production. Additionally, he endorsed a Pentagon plan to transfer weapons from U.S. stockpiles to Taiwan under the same authority that President Joe Biden has used to arm Ukraine.
Brown said that munitions sent to Ukraine and Taiwan “are somewhat different just based on the environment that they’re operating in, but there are some that are similar.”
Asked about lessons drawn from the Ukraine war, Brown said the conflict has highlighted the importance of air power.
“From my own perspective as an airman, the value of airpower and having watched what either side has been able to do or not do, but the value of innovative air defense and how that’s been helpful to the Ukrainians in defense of their nation,” said Brown.
He also highlighted how logistics challenges have hampered Russia’s would-be-conquest of Ukraine, and the difficulty of measuring a military’s will to fight. Additionally, he said it stressed the value of using intelligence before a crisis occurs.
In his three years as Air Force chief of staff, Brown has pushed his service to modernize and prepare for a fight against an advanced adversary such as China — an effort he dubbed Accelerate Change or Lose.
Brown reiterated the importance of modernizing to be able to meet a new threat, even if it means sacrificing one’s “own parochial interests.”
That can be a challenge, he acknowledged. But he pledged to carry that mindset into his new role heading the joint chiefs, if confirmed.
“The challenge there is having all of our service members understanding the big picture, and why this is so important, why we need to modernize, and what’s at stake,” Brown said. “Then you step away from your own parochial interests and then we do what’s best — not just for your part of the organization, but what’s best for the entire organization.”
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.