General Mark Milley Is Retiring. Meet The Contenders To Replace Him As Biden’s Top Adviser On Military Affairs

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)(Photo by Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • Air Force chief of staff Gen. Charles Q. “C.Q.” Brown and Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger have emerged as the top contenders to replace Gen. Mark Milley as President Joe Biden’s top adviser on military issues after Milley’s retirement in October.
  • The Biden administration’s perception of China’s military designs will dictate his decision more than anything else, experts said.
  • “I think General Berger would be more unflappable but that General Brown might be more inspirational,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Both contenders to replace Gen. Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff later this year are focused on change to counter China, but one is prone to radical changes while the other affirms the administration’s ideological priorities, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

With Milley, a Trump appointee, set to retire by October, President Joe Biden is expected to announce his pick to replace the outgoing Army four-star soon between top prospects Air Force chief of staff Gen. Charles Q. “C.Q.” Brown and Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger, according to The New York Times. Both would differ from Milley’s gregarious leadership style, but while Brown has experience in a key area of operations and satisfies the Biden administration’s focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in public service, Berger has shown the grit to make radical, if difficult, changes necessary for coming great power conflict, according to defense experts and media reports. (RELATED: Gen. Mark Milley Complained Of Becoming Political ‘Lightning Rod’ After Defending CRT In The Military)

“As the symbol of the U.S. armed forces amid the ebb and flow of political tides, I think General Berger would be more unflappable but that General Brown might be more inspirational,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.

Brown, a fighter pilot and the first African American to serve among the Joint Chiefs since Colin Powell became chairman three decades ago, is at the forefront of the race, the NYT reported, citing administration officials.

Brown’s colleagues told the NYT he has seen success in dealing with threats and allies in the Pacific, and has a methodical approach.

Berger, on the other hand, is a Marine infantryman and four-star general with more experience in the Middle East. But under his leadership, the Marine Corps has embarked on a massive restructuring that ruffled feathers across the joint force and, according to Berger, will make the force better positioned to address challenges specific to the Indo-Pacific theater.

The Joint Chiefs chairman is “the foremost military advisor in the land, preparing American personnel and capabilities for conflict should deterrence fail” and instilling fear in potential adversaries, Cronin explained to the DCNF.

Joint Chiefs chairmen typically rotate through the services; the last time an Air Force member filled the post was in 2005, while two Marines, two Army generals and a Navy admiral have served since, according to the NYT.

Both men must make it through the Senate for confirmation.

Prior to serving as Air Force chief of staff, Brown served as commander of U.S. Air Forces – Pacific, which would play a critical role in denying China air superiority in the event of a Taiwan contingency, Maximilian Bremer and Kelly Grieco wrote for War on the Rocks, a publication for scholars of geopolitics and military affairs. He has clocked nearly 3,000 flying hours, of which 130 were in combat.

Brown also appeals to the administration’s DEI bent, Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told the DCNF. His concerted messaging on racism in the military matches the White House’s agenda to combat racism and perceived barriers to inclusion and success for minorities.

Shortly before being confirmed as chief of staff and in the midst of nationwide rioting and protests following George Floyd’s murder in 202o, Brown offered his thoughts in a video posted on social media.

“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,” he said, referencing the imbalance in the proportion of black senior officers in the Air Force compared to lower-level and enlisted. “I’m thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially by supervisors I perceived had expected less of me as an African American.”

Since then, the Air Force has independently conducted deep-dive investigations into racial and gender discrimination in the Air Force. In February 2022, DefenseOne reported that Brown led monthly “inclusion councils” where leaders “ask some really hard questions.”

Brown’s comments, charged by the political context and deep disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over issues relating to racism and police brutality in the U.S., did not inhibit his confirmation in the Senate, according to NYT.

Both Brown and Berger recently denied that DEI and other “woke” policies have harmed readiness and recruiting in an interview with Defense One, saying that inclusion and diversity initiatives help build cohesive teams.

Berger said “zero evidence” has emerged that DEI programs have eroded the Marine Corps’ warfighting capabilities, according to Defense One.

“What I will tell you is when people join our military, they want to look around and see somebody who looks like them,” Brown told the outlet.

Brown featured in a well-received 2021 Air Force recruiting ad, urging audiences to imagine him, or any other pilot regardless of race or gender, with his helmet on and face concealed, the NYT reported. “You just know I’m an American airman, kicking your butt. I’m General C.Q. Brown Jr. Come join us,” he said.

“General Brown is known to have been a good pilot and he is more impressive than Gen. Berger, but he seems to be disproportionately interested in “diversity” for diversity’s sake, even at the expense of non-discrimination and meritocracy,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Excellence, told the DCNF.

Both generals have also endorsed divesting from legacy equipment and depending more on artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, drone fleets, long-range missiles and other advanced technologies in a 2021 joint op-ed for The Washington Post. Such shifts are necessary as the U.S. emerges from an era of counterinsurgency to engage in competition with great powers, they argued.

In 2020, Berger unveiled a new vision for the Marine Corps hinging on the assumption China would pose the greatest threat to the U.S. in the coming decade. Those changes including not a greater emphasis on technical skill cutting-edge technologies, but massive organizational shifts as well.

“He has not been afraid to break eggs and make necessary changes,” Spoehr said.

He proposed to develop “stand-in forces” that could deploy rapidly in the Indo-Pacific and “herd adversaries into areas where U.S. naval and joint forces can bring more weapons to bear,” Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith said in an article for the U.S. Naval Institute, a posture that reflects the force’s “island-hopping” World War II strategy more than anything since.

Berger also planned to sack multiple infantry battalions and hand off 400 tanks to the Army, sparking opposition from former senior leaders, according to Dov S. Zakheim, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Berger’s penchant for radical change could be a drawback, Donnelly told the DCNF. “His single-minded leadership style raises questions about his ability to build consensus and unified resolve if or when China attacks allies in the Pacific.”

“Through it all, Berger has sustained the day-to-day readiness required to deploy ready-Marines into harms way, should our projections not match with the strategic goals and timing of our enemy,” John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at Heritage, said to the DCNF.

For his part, Brown has made his imprint on force structure to “accelerate change or lose” with an emphasis on long-range strike forces and better command and control, according to Air Force Times.

Brown elevated investment in those technologies, planned to reach maturity in the early-to-mid 2030s when China’s military capabilities are projected to peak, “to all-time highs,” while allowing the number of flying hours and sorties aircraft logged, “once a critical measure of the service’s health, to drop to all-time lows,” Venable said.

“Picking the next Chairman will depend more on the administration’s assessment of China, than any other facet,” Venable told the DCNF. If conventional wisdom holds and China forgoes military action until the 2030s, Biden will choose Brown; if the latest estimates of imminent movements hold, If China moves quickly, the Marine Corps commandant will come out ahead.

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