Donald Trump handpicked the nation’s top military brass while he was in office. Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn.
As many as five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the eight most senior uniformed leaders who advise the president on military issues, are scheduled to leave their assignments this year. Besides the Joint Chiefs chair, the heads of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and potentially the Air Force are all set to leave. Three of the military’s top operational commanders are changing over as well: The heads of Northern Command, Space Command and Cyber Command.
The vacancies give President Biden a chance to put his stamp on the Joint Chiefs as the administration looks to take big steps to counter Chinese aggression in the Pacific, chart a new course in Europe after the Ukraine invasion and dump old weapons systems to make room for new ones.
“These are legacy moments for the Biden administration, but they are also the guard rails for the republic,” Peter Feaver, a former staffer on the National Security Council and author of “Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations.”
It’s also an opportunity for Biden, who named the first Black defense secretary in 2021, to make more historic appointments, including the first female member of the Joint Chiefs. Last year, Biden chose Adm. Linda Fagan to be the first female commandant of the Coast Guard, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security.
POLITICO spoke to 11 current and former Defense Department officials, as well as leaders in academia with knowledge of the discussions to forecast who’s in the running for the jobs. Some were granted anonymity to discuss the subject ahead of the announcements.
Here are the names at the top of the list:
Current leader: Army Gen. Mark Milley, sworn in Oct. 1, 2019
The frontrunner: Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown
If you ask most people at DoD, the shoo-in for the top job is Gen. C.Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff. Brown, a fighter pilot by training, has stellar credentials, serving as commander of the service’s forces both in the Middle East and in the Pacific. He is also the first Black man to serve as Air Force chief of staff, and was nominated for the job the same summer as the Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation.
Brown is not known for making news, and typically sticks closely to the talking points during public appearances and press engagements. But in a rare candid moment, he weighed in on the racial unrest roiling the country in an emotional video describing his experience navigating the issue in the military.
Tapping Brown for the top job would mean plucking him from his current post before his term is up. He was sworn in Aug. 6, 2020, and has another year left as the Air Force’s top officer.
Marine Corps Gen. David Berger
The White House is also considering Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps Commandant, who has served in the post since July 2019.
Berger “connected” more with the president during his interview for the job, one former DoD official said. Berger’s interview lasted 90 minutes, while Brown’s interview lasted only 40, another former DoD official said.
A career infantry officer, Berger has commanded troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. Yet he is seen as controversial in some corners of the military. His vision for reshaping the Marines by shedding heavy weaponry in favor of a lighter, faster force has drawn criticism, particularly from retired generals.
The longer interview for Berger doesn’t mean he has the job of course, but one person familiar with both Berger and Brown pointed out that the Marine leader is considered more talkative than the analytical Brown. Plus, Berger’s almost total rethinking of how the Marine Corps will be positioned to fight — particularly in the Pacific — is by far the most ambitious retooling of any of the services in decades, which could have sparked more conversation.
One factor that might weigh against Berger is that the current vice chair, Adm. Christopher Grady, is a Navy officer. Lawmakers frown on having a chair and vice chair from within a department, such as the Department of the Navy, which includes both the Navy and Marine Corps.
Army Gen. Laura Richardson
DoD insiders aren’t ruling out Gen. Laura Richardson, an Army officer serving as the commander of U.S. Southern Command. She is one of only 10 women ever to hold the rank of a four-star general or admiral. A helicopter pilot, Richardson previously served as commanding general of U.S. Army North, and has commanded an assault helicopter battalion in Iraq. She also served as military aide to former Vice President Al Gore, and the Army’s legislative liaison to Congress.
But one unofficial rule of the process is that no two consecutive chairs should be from the same service. Since Milley is also an Army officer, Richardson may be at a disadvantage. However, she is also seen as a candidate to replace Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.
Current leader: Army Gen. James McConville, sworn in Aug. 9, 2019.
The frontrunner: Army Gen. Randy George
While Richardson is a contender, the top candidate for Army chief of staff is Gen. Randy George, who is serving in the vice chief of staff role. George is an infantry officer who served in the 101st Airborne Division and deployed in support of the Gulf War. He also served as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s senior military assistant from June 2021 to July 2022.
Army Gen. Andrew Poppas
Another possibility is Gen. Andrew Poppas, a former commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division. He’s the head of Army Forces Command, a position Milley also held before becoming the Army’s top officer. Poppas also served as director of operations of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, a post Austin held in 2009.
Current leader: Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, sworn in on Aug. 22, 2019.
The frontrunner: Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti
Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti, currently the vice chief of naval operations, is widely seen as a lock for the top job. The second woman to hold the vice CNO job, Franchetti also holds a degree in journalism. A career surface warfare officer, Franchetti served on the Joint Staff, and commanded the destroyer USS Ross.
Navy Adm. Samuel Paparo
There has also been some talk of Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, as a possible candidate. He is a longshot, however, and is considered the top pick to take over as head of Indo-Pacific Command in two years when Adm. John Aquilino moves on.
Current leader: Gen. C.Q. Brown, sworn in on Aug. 6, 2020.
The frontrunner: Gen. Jacqueline Von Ovost
If Brown is tapped to be the next chair, that creates an opening to be the top leader of the Air Force.
There’s a lot of buzz around Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who as the commander of U.S. Transportation Command has been at the center of all DoD’s most high-profile efforts during the Biden administration. Her forces moved vaccines during the Covid-19 response, flew evacuees from Kabul airport in 2021 and are shipping weapons to Ukraine. She is the first female head of Transportation Command, and would be the first woman to head the Air Force.
Gen. David Allvin
The Air Force’s No. 2 military officer since 2020, Allvin previously served as the director for strategy, plans, and policy on the Joint Staff. He comes from the air mobility community and commanded forces in Afghanistan and Europe.
Current leader: Gen. David Berger, sworn in on July 11, 2019
The frontrunner: Gen. Eric Smith
Gen. Eric Smith is the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, making him the service’s No. 2 general. He has commanded at every level, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a general officer, he commanded the Marine Corps’ forces in U.S. Southern Command, as well as Marine Corps Combat Development Command. He also served in the Pentagon as senior military assistant to the defense secretary in 2016 to 2017.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl
While Smith has for months topped the list as a successor to Berger, another candidate in high standing is Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, who leads the Marine Corps’ Combat Development Command. In that job, Heckl has pushed to test and implement Berger’s reforms, and he has in many ways been the service’s public face for modernization in the Berger vein.
Joe Gould, Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson contributed to this report.
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