The Air Force announced Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s nomination to become Chief of Staff in March, just days after Air Force Magazine News Editor Amy McCullough and Editor-in-Chief Tobias Naegele caught up with him for an interview during the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Once confirmed, Brown will become the 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff, replacing Gen. David Goldfein. His comments here have been edited for space.
Q. The National Defense Strategy focuses on the pivot to the Indo-Pacific. How do you change the playbook to make that happen, and what kind of progress are you seeing so far?
Part of it is education. And, what I mean by that is, the decision-makers [and] policymakers have to have a better understanding of the Indo-Pacific Theater. Because of what we’ve done over the past 25-plus years since the Cold War in Europe, and in our alliance with NATO, we have a comfort zone there. I don’t know that the Indo-Pacific is an area that is well understood. The more we have decision-makers come out and visit the region and get to know the partners [there], they will have a better appreciation of the region and how we need to look at the threat as well as our partners. It’s not one size fits all.
The size of the region is roughly five times the size of the [U.S. European Command] AOR. But then you also have different dynamics in the AOR. You know, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, are a bit different from India, which is at the other end of the spectrum, or Australia and New Zealand.
The other difference we have there, too, is that our economies are pretty well intertwined. If you look in the region, a large percentage of the world’s population is in the Indo-Pacific.
Q. What impact does China’s relationship with its neighbors play in the region?
The Russians aren’t economically intertwined with a lot of things that are going on in Europe, not like the Chinese [across Asia]. You’ve heard people talk about, ‘cooperate where you can, compete where you must.’ Economically, there is a level where cooperation can occur.
Q. You’ve cited increased military cooperation between Russia and China in the past. Is that still an issue?
I don’t know, I think they’d be hard-pressed to have a strategic relationship, partly because I don’t know that they have the same outlook on the geopolitical aspects of what’s going on in our region. They have exercised together, but they don’t exercise like we do. You could probably describe it as exercising in the same location, same day; parallel play, less integration. We’re much more integrated and operable with our partners than they are.
The other part is, because I’ve asked this question rhetorically, ‘who’s going to be the junior partner?’ Because I don’t think either one of them wants to be the junior partner. You don’t necessarily have to have a junior partner, but you have to have an understanding of [the relationship] between the two. There’s some natural friction that we don’t necessarily have with our partners, where we’re able to work closely together.
Some of our partners have capabilities we don’t have. One of the things I share with you is, as I talk to our partners with small forces, they look at me and go, ‘You guys are big Air Force, there’s a lot of things you can do.’ I say, ‘You’re a small air force, there’s a lot of things you can do that I can’t do.’ You can be flexible in certain areas. There’s some things we can learn from smaller partners with smaller air forces.
Q. In Europe, the European Deterrence Initiative sets money aside for regional defense and reassurance efforts. With the pivot to the Pacific and the focus on countering China, is there a need for something similar in the Indo-Pacific? Has that been discussed at all?
Oh, it has been discussed. We’ve talked about it quite often. We do need to think about how we invest in the region. It doesn’t initially need to be big investments or large investments, but we do need to think about how we invest in the Pacific vis-a-vis in Europe.
I [went] to Ramstein [Air Base, Germany] as A3 for USAFE-AFAFRICA the week after the Russians went into Crimea. So, that event drove what I will call a mini crisis, to actually energize a lot of things. In the Indo-Pacific, what is the mini crisis? What is the [chance] the PRC is going to do something that actually is going to drive a big spike to get us to say, ‘yes,’ and throw a bunch of money in a different direction? They’re looking at it long-term, and I think they do just enough below the radar, so that it doesn’t spike. Because they don’t want it to spike, but they are able to do certain things. That’s how the features got built in the South China Sea.
Q. As the coronavirus spreads, what kind of safety precautions are you taking for Airmen in your theater? What impact is that having on exercises, and are they being quarantined when they come back from these exercises?
We’re actually being proactive. We look at every exercise and the environment in that particular location, and we look at the additional travel restrictions put in place by various countries. We don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we send forces to an exercise, and they get sick. But then, we also don’t want to send a unit off to a location, and they come back and have to quarantine for X amount of time. That impacts our ability to go do something else, so we’re being very judicious in our planning as we work through the exercises.
Q. PACAF launched the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept several years ago; the idea of operating from austere bases and quickly getting there. How much have you tested that? What have you learned since that concept was first launched? And how is it evolving?
We’ve learned a fair amount. I think the one thing I’ve learned is that if we can give the concept and some broad guidance to our Airmen, they can come up with ideas on how to do things differently. There’s an aspect of being able to trust an Airman to go do what we’ve asked him to do, and then they need to feel confident to go do what you asked them to do without having to report back to the AOC or ask for permission. So, that is a cultural aspect that we’ve got to continue to work on. As I travel around and talk to squadron commanders, I tell them, ‘I want to trust you. I do trust you,’ but, unfortunately, some of our guidance actually lays out all the things that a commander shall, must do. So, we have probably more work to do.
We’ve asked commanders at the squadron level to do more things, and they probably have the bandwidth, guidance, time, and resources that we’ve provided them. I asked them to tell me what you can’t do. And then we can talk about the risk associated with this. That dialogue I have with my commanders [is important], and we should be able to talk about the aspects where I’ve shorted them, or the Air Force has shorted them. There’s going to be a risk factor associated with that, and we have to determine where that risk lies, and then how we approach it. Because there’s certain things [where] you can say, ‘We just can’t get there. We can’t do this.’ And we may go, ‘We’re all good with that, because we just can’t get there from here, but these are things we’ve got to be able to do.’
The other aspect is how do we go lighter and leaner with what support equipment we take? Sometimes we bring things just in case. What if you didn’t bring it? Or what if we had another partner who is flying the same airplane at a third location? How do we set up an ACSA [acquisition cross servicing agreement], so I could actually borrow that part from you and not have to ship it to that location, so having that understanding of what capacity lays with our partners.
The last thing I will tell you is that what I found was there was a lot of entities across the Air Force doing ACE-like events, maybe with different names. And there was a little bitof, ‘My ACE is better than your ACE.’ And so, what I pushed for last June, was to get all the Majcoms and get our deputy commanders to come together in a forum to look at and talk about ACE. The goal was not to debate ACE. The goal was to figure out what things can we agree on? We know the first thing you need to agree on is some lexicon, so we’re using the same terminology. But then what things are we doing? Okay, let’s codify that part. And then let’s continue to work on some other areas that we’re pretty close on.
Q. Can you elaborate on the things you agreed on beyond the lexicon?
We’re using the expeditionary center to build a training syllabus for multicapable Airmen. There are certain scenarios where regardless of AFSC, you can do more than one thing. I look at when we do our contingent response groups. We have a small team that is multicapable. I wouldn’t say every Air Force Specialty Code has to be multicapable. There are certain ones that ought to be only capable on one thing because the thing that they’re doing is really important. But there’s others where they have bandwidth based on the tempo of a conflict, or contingency, to do something else.
Q. Should some of those AFSCs be collapsed, or is this like a secondary specialty?
It’s almost like a secondary specialty. It gets rid of some of the union cards, and the idea that you can’t do this because you’re not fully trained. If we go into conflict, and we start losing people, and I need somebody to go refill aircraft or help load an aircraft, or help unload a C- 130, we’re going to figure out some folks who can work with someone who is actually trained and go, ‘Here’s what I need you to do. You stand here and you do this.’
What I want to be able to do is to give the Air Staff a one-pager, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to achieve.’ I think on the training aspect, because the syllabus is being worked on with the expeditionary center, we’re actually in a pretty good spot.
Q. The Arctic has been an area of increasing attention recently. And you’re probably one of the very few people who can say, ‘I’ve been to the Antarctic.’ Why are these polar regions so important right now?
When you look at the Arctic, if you’re a late mover there, opportunities may be lost, whether it’s a great power competition, economically, whatever the case may be. The capabilities that you need in the Arctic are some of the same capabilities you need today in the Antarctic. And there’s a Russian presence on Antarctica. There’s also a Chinese presence on Antarctica. And the Chinese presence is growing. And it’s all supposed to be about science.
Q. U.S. Northern Command boss Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy has said this is not one of those areas where you can just hop into and be successful. So, eventually the Antarctic is not going to be all about science. Are you considering exercising in that area? How do you do something like that?
I wouldn’t call it exercising, but you know, whatever training we do for Arctic training, Arctic survival, those kinds of things are probably the same things you do in the Antarctic. If you talk about the ice melting in the Arctic, there’s potential for the ice to melt in Antarctica, and it may open up some things. I bring it up so we’re thinking about it, and it is not just written off. … If you don’t think about it, when 2040 comes around, you don’t want to go, ‘If I coulda, woulda, shoulda,’ because you weren’t thinking about it.