WASHINGTON — As the country is gripped by civil unrest over racial injustice and the death of George Floyd, the U.S. Senate has been poised to confirm the first black chief of a military service branch. But the nomination was being quietly delayed by one senator as leverage in a basing decision for the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.
Sen. Dan Sullivan has lifted a legislative hold he placed on the nomination of Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, Defense News has learned. The Alaska Republican established the hold shortly after Brown’s confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee in early May, preventing his nomination from moving forward, according to three sources with knowledge of the matter.
President Donald Trump on March 2 nominated Brown, currently the commander of Pacific Air Forces, to replace Gen. Dave Goldfein as the Air Force’s top general. Brown was one of four nominees SASC reported favorably on May 19, but the only one not to receive Senate floor consideration in the days since.
The weekslong delay for Brown’s historic confirmation vote has flown under the radar amid other controversies surrounding Trump’s involvement of the military as a response to protests and violence around the country — and as the Pentagon wrestles with its own sensitivities to racial issues.
On Wednesday evening, Sullivan confirmed to Defense News that he had held up Brown’s nomination while waiting for responses to additional questions about the KC-46.
“You probably saw the confirmation hearing. I had some follow up questions on it. They got back to me now and so he’s cleared hot,” he said. “You know the nomination process, you’ve seen that I take it very seriously. The questions I asked are serious and then when we have questions for the record, they’ve got to be answered appropriately. So we’re just going through that. And we got there, so yeah he’s cleared hot.”
Sullivan is widely known as a dogged advocate for his state as a strategic hub for the U.S. military. The lawmaker has lobbied the Air Force to base the KC-46 tanker in Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, which is under consideration as one of four candidate bases in the Asia-Pacific region.
In a May 2 interview with Defense News, Sullivan said, “it’s a complete no brainer that it should be Alaska.”
During Brown’s hearing, Sullivan engaged Brown in a long line of questioning about whether it would be advantageous to position the KC-46 within reach of several combatant commands, near an installation with access to both a large airspace, and close to fifth generation fighter jets like the F-35 and F-22 — all characteristics of U.S. air bases in Alaska.
Brown responded in the affirmative.
“Does it make sense, on the flip side, to have OCONUS [outside the contiguous United States] KC-46s in a location that's focused only on one combatant command and will be vulnerable soon to long-range precision weapons from our adversaries in the [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] region?” Sullivan asked.
“Senator, it probably does not because it increases the risk to the fleet,” Brown responded.
However, Brown stopped short of committing to base KC-46s in Alaska.
On May 19, the committee voted by voice to approve a number of civilian Defense Department nominees en bloc, to include now-Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, and a number of uniformed nominees en bloc, to include Brown.
Though Brown’s name been on the Senate’s executive calendar ever since, Brown was not among the group of 30 uniformed officers who were approved on the Senate floor on May 21 by unanimous consent.
SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said Wednesday he would know before the end of the day when Brown’s nomination would receive consideration on the Senate floor.
Senators can hold back a nominee from moving forward in the confirmation process in secret, but a formal hold must be reported to the lawmaker’s party leadership. And while holds can be overcome, it requires time consuming procedures such as filing cloture, a motion to end debate that requires 51 votes.
Usually, a senator will drop a legislative hold on a nominee after the presumptive official answers key questions or satisfies outstanding requests made by that lawmaker. However, the Air Force only announces basing decisions after going through an analytic process that takes into account factors such as cost, environmental considerations and how that location affects the ability of a platform to accomplish its mission — making it unlikely that Brown could satisfy a request from a lawmaker to base assets in a certain location.
In the months before his nomination was announced, Brown had been widely viewed among his Air Force peers as a lock on the chief of staff position due to his extensive experience commanding U.S. forces overseas.
Before being named as head of PACAF in 2018, Brown was deputy commander of U.S. Central Command for two years. From 2015 to 2016, he served as U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s combined force air component commander, where he oversaw the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as operations against insurgent groups in Afghanistan.
The Air Force plans to buy a total of 179 KC-46s from Boeing. So far, the tankers have been based at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire.
Updated on 6/3/20 to add comments from Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/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.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.