What Biden’s expected Joint Chiefs pick will likely face in the Senate
Brown, who POLITICO first reported is Biden’s choice to succeed Milley, is likely to survive his confirmation battle in the Democratic-led Senate.
But the process probably won’t go as smoothly as it did three years ago, with the four-star general potentially facing tough questions about China’s possible invasion of Taiwan, the future of Ukraine’s fight to repel Russia and diversity policies conservatives have derided as distracting the military from its main missions.
Previous hearing room exchanges offer clues about how Brown will perform at his confirmation. By all accounts, he’s a cool customer: even-tempered, serious, succinct and direct. But the questions he faced were about the Air Force, well within his comfort zone.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues you can expect senators to focus on, and how Brown might answer:
Diversity and other Biden policies
Brown could see harsh questions by conservative senators on a variety of Pentagon policies they regard as a distraction from the military’s mission of fighting the nation’s wars.
Republicans have largely opposed efforts by the Biden administration to promote diversity and root out extremism in the ranks as well as combat the effects of climate change. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are routinely pressed on those and other personnel issues in their appearances on Capitol Hill. Milley made waves in the House for his defense against criticism that the military is distracted by those programs.
Brown, who is the highest-ranking Black military leader since Colin Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs in the early 1990s, spoke out about his own experience as one of the few Black pilots following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. In an emotional video, Brown reflected on “my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
Brown could also face pressure from Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) or others over policies implemented by Austin to shore up troops’ access to abortion following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Democrats have praised the move, but Republicans want it reversed, arguing it politicizes the military and undercuts laws that bar taxpayer funding for abortions.
After the ruling in 2022, Brown was asked in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum how it would affect the Air Force.
“We have a responsibility to comply with the law. But we also have an obligation to take care of our airmen and their families,” Brown said.
Russia and Ukraine
While Milley has weighed in extensively on the Ukraine war, Brown’s views have been aired far less frequently — and when they have, they’ve made headlines.
Brown has Europe experience: Just before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, he was headquartered in Germany as the lead for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration at U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
At the Aspen Security Forum last summer, Milley said no decisions had been made to offer Ukraine Western fighter jets and pilot training, a hot-button issue rippling through Washington and the NATO alliance.
But Brown — who has a history in the cockpits of the F-16, B-1 and B-52 — offered some much-discussed speculation that such training was a possibility, and he riffed on what types of aircraft Ukraine might eventually receive.
“I can’t speculate what aircraft they may go to,” Brown said, but the U.S. has a “responsibility” to train its allies and, when it comes to Ukraine’s needs, “meet them where they are.”
“There’s U.S. [aircraft], there’s Gripen out of Sweden, there’s the Eurofighter, there’s [the French] Rafale. So there’s a number of different platforms that could go to Ukraine,” Brown said, adding with a smile: “Maybe not MiGs. It’ll be a lot tougher to get parts from the Russians in the future.”
Two Ukrainian pilots came to the U.S. in March for a fighter skills assessment at Tucson’s Morris Air National Guard Base.
Senate Armed Services members Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tuberville, may push Brown for his views about sending F-16 jets to Ukraine, after they queried the Pentagon on the topic. And what about an Air Force plan to send uncrewed aircraft?
Top civilians have said fighters would take too long to deliver and that the emphasis should be on ground-based air defenses such as Ukraine’s S-300s, German IRIS-Ts or newly arrived Patriots.
Months earlier, Brown credited Russia’s lack of dominance over Ukraine’s skies to Kyiv’s use of those defenses, both donated and indigenous.
“Air superiority cannot be assumed, and one of the things that the Ukrainians have been able to do based on their air defense capability is actually threaten Russian air power,” he told Senate Armed Services member Joe Manchin at a hearing last year.
China and Taiwan
Brown will meet a Senate that’s grown more hawkish on China and he’ll face questions about what more the U.S. must do to deter Beijing from launching an invasion of Taiwan in the coming years.
Democrats and Republicans have pushed for more funding to better position the military in the Indo-Pacific region as well as to pump up arms sales to Taiwan. But lawmakers are also concerned the Pentagon isn’t moving fast enough to arm the self-governing island. Top Senate Armed Services Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi has argued the window is closing for the U.S. to buy the weapons and equipment that might be needed if a conflict breaks out before the end of the decade.
Brown’s main competition for the top job, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, is hailed for retooling the Corps to focus on a Pacific fight. Brown, meanwhile, commanded Pacific Air Forces before taking over as the service’s top officer. He’ll likely draw on that experience in his pitch to senators.
“He is literally on the front lines in implementing the National Defense Strategy, which has a focus on great power competition, particularly China as the pacing threat to our nation for the next 50 to 100 years,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, (R-Alaska) who previously delayed a vote on Brown over a decision on basing aerial tankers, said before his confirmation as Air Force chief of staff in June 2020. “Gen. Brown is in that battle right now, front-lines every day.”
Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Brown’s experience will give him “credibility” to spur the military to adapt to the Pacific.
“We have not yet made the needed adjustments to deal with the threat posed by China,” he said. “As chairman, General Brown will be in a position to drive the joint force and joint operations to deal with the threats posed not only by China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea.”
But will China invade?
Top leaders testifying before Congress have given a broad range of answers when asked if, and when, China might invade Taiwan.
But Brown’s response to one particularly fiery prediction offers clues as to how soon he thinks the threat may actually come.
Gen. Mike Minihan, Air Mobility Command head, made waves in January following news reports of a memo showing he predicted war with China in two years.
In the memo, he told the officers in his command that “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” He added that his leaders should “aim for the head.”
Brown, when asked about the memo, told reporters there were “aspects” of the missive that disappointed him. “It detracted from the key message of the sense of urgency that is required,” he said.
Caught in a promotions logjam?
Regardless of how he does before the committee, Brown’s nomination will land in a Senate that’s mired in a partisan deadlock over confirming military promotions, which have typically been approved with little opposition.
Tuberville has blocked the speedy confirmation of all senior military officer picks over policies implemented by the Pentagon in February that allow troops to be reimbursed for travel expenses and take leave to obtain abortions or other reproductive care.
The resulting standoff has meant that no nominees for general or admiral ranks have been confirmed in months. It’s a stalemate that Pentagon leaders say will hurt military readiness as commanders leave their posts or retire and aren’t replaced by permanent leaders — even uniting nearly all living U.S. defense secretaries this week in opposition to the blockade.
The backlog is building and could ensnare Biden’s picks for the Joint Chiefs if it drags on.
There are ways to slip through the blockade and ensure there are no vacancies at the most senior military posts. Once Brown clears the Armed Services Committee, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could hold a cloture vote on Brown’s nomination, a procedural tactic to escape holds in the Senate.
It’s a road Democrats may not want to wait to take until it’s absolutely necessary. Tuberville has argued that he isn’t preventing anyone’s confirmation, only forcing the Senate to take time to vote on nominees.