Next Joint Chiefs Chairman

The Marine and Air Force chiefs appear to be the top candidates.

WaPo’s Dan Lamothe reports “Marine, Air Force generals emerge as Joint Chiefs chairman contenders.”

The Biden administration has launched its search to find the next chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, landing on the top generals in the Air Force and the Marine Corps as leading contenders, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, chief of staff of the Air Force, and Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, will probably be interviewed by President Biden before the commander in chief settles on whom he would like to replace Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, who has served as the Pentagon’s top uniformed officer since fall 2019, these people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal deliberations.

By law, Milley must rotate out of the position by the end of September. He is expected to retire.

It’s possible that other candidates could emerge, the people familiar with the matter said, particularly from the Army. Anyone who has served as either a service chief or a combatant commander is eligible, opening the position to senior officers in roles such as the chiefs of U.S. Central Command, Indo-Pacific Command or U.S. European Command. One such candidate is Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, an Army officer who leads U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, these people said.

A Navy officer is unlikely to be considered, because the No. 2 job is filled by Adm. Christopher W. Grady, who is confirmed by the Senate to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Historically, the chair job has rotated between the military services, making an Army officer following Milley less likely. Biden’s eventual nominee also must be confirmed by the Senate.

The WSJ‘s Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold are reporting the same names:

President Biden is considering two service chiefs and the head of the U.S. cyber defense command to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in what will be the president’s biggest opportunity to date to shape U.S. military leadership.

Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, are leading candidates to succeed Army Gen. Mark Milley as the Pentagon’s top officer when his four-year appointment ends Sept. 30. Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who serves as both head of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, also is a contender, U.S. and defense officials said.

The president is expected to announce his nominee in the spring. The candidate then would face a Senate confirmation hearing. The Pentagon and the White House declined to comment.

They add:

The nomination of the chairman of the joint chiefs is one of the most consequential decisions a president makes on the U.S. military. While the chairman is the highest-ranking military officer, he has no troops under his command. Rather, he serves as the top military adviser to the president, and over time, the Joint Chiefs has gained deep influence over every part of U.S. security. During Gen. Milley’s time in the job, the position also has shaped public opinion of the military. 

To choose a chairman, each of the services nominates an eligible general or admiral for the position, and by tradition, the job rotates among the services. Because Gen. Milley is from the Army, it is unlikely that he would be succeeded by Gen. Nakasone, another Army officer. The last Marine to serve as Chairman was Gen. Joe Dunford, who stepped down in 2019. The last airman to hold the post was Gen. Richard Myers, whose term ended in 2005.

While any of the three would be outstanding choices—all of them have reputations as strategic thinkers—my strong guess is that it will be Brown. Not only is the Air Force long overdue for a “turn,” but he would only be the second Black man to hold the job, after Colin Powell.

I would be quite surprised if it were Nakasone. While it’s not unprecedented for an Army officer to follow another in the role (indeed, Powell was followed by John Shalikashvile, who was followed by Hugh Shelton) it’s unusual. Beyond that, recent tradition has been that the Chairman be a sitting service chief or Vice Chairman; the last who wasn’t was Shelton, who retired 22 years ago. (Congress changed the law recently, making the Vice Chairman ineligible for elevation.)

Regardless, it’s time for a change. Milley has likely done as well as was possible under the bizarre circumstances of the Trump presidency but he is nonetheless perceived as a partisan actor. A fresh start will be welcome.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    I nominate George Santos, who graduated first in his class at West Point and is a decorated war hero from both Iraq Wars and Afghanistan.

  2. JohnSF says:

    What about Space Force? 🙂