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The Air Force’s top officer is Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the first and so far only Black service chief in U.S. military history. Nick Schifrin sits down with General Brown to look at his history and his priorities for the force, including how he plans to address diversity, racism and extremism issues.
The Air Force's top officer is general C.Q. Brown Jr., the first and so far only Black service chief in U.S. military history.
Nick Schifrin sits down with General Brown, and first looks at his history and his priorities.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown:
When I'm flying, and put my helmet on, my visor down, my mask up, you don't know who I am.
It's an Air Force recruiting ad-libbed by its top officer.
Whether I'm African American, Asian American, Hispanic, white, male, or female, you just know I'm an American airman kicking your butt.
General C.Q. Brown Jr. became Air Force chief of staff in 2020, and one of his priorities, diversifying the force.
During last year's national disquiet following George Floyd's death, he called out the military for the racism he experienced.
I'm thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African American.
I think about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member, "Are you a pilot?"
I'm thinking about my mentors and how rarely I had a mentor that looked like me.
Brown says Air Force priorities are making sure American aircraft can control the skies and strike anywhere and gather intelligence and protect military communications.
Much of the focus is in the Pacific. Brown urges the military to modernize faster and change its approach to be able to take on China's expanding military, including flying planes out of new bases across the region.
And joining me now is General C.Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff of the Air Force.
General, good to have you on the "NewsHour."
Nick, thank you. Appreciate to be here.
As we noted, while Colin Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs, you are the first Black service chief. Why do you think that is?
Well, one of the things I think about is that there's plenty that have probably been qualified.
I think I have just been the first to have the opportunity. I have been very blessed with the opportunities I have had throughout my Air Force career. In some cases, I think it's being in that the right place at the right time. And I'm just honored to have this opportunity.
Let's talk about other people who would want to have that opportunity.
There was an inspector general report released last year that found, across the board, consistently over time, Black airmen disproportionately negatively affected when it comes to promotion rates, development, leadership opportunities. And, on punishment, the review found enlisted Black service members 74 percent more likely to receive non-judicial punishment, 60 percent more likely to face court-martials than their white peers.
Well, part of that is I think you look at the aspect of, we have not looked at ourselves as a service.
I would say we also reflect the nation in some aspects. We stepped back after the events of last May with George Floyd, and then took a hard look at ourselves, and what we found as we looked at the data, not only the data that you just highlighted, but the feedback we got from our airmen, resounding feedback from airmen.
So, let's talk about solutions.
I talked to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, retired chairman, who uses a phrase ducks hire ducks, meaning white officers would elevate other white officers. Is one of the solutions essentially breaking a white boys club?
Well, part of the solution is actually having to first slate of candidates. When you look at any one of our positions where we're doing interviews is, you want to have a diverse slate of candidates.
And it does two things. It introduces you to somebody you may not already know. The second thing it does, it prepares that individual for future interviews.
You sense any resistance to that?
By and large, I think many of our airmen and our leaders, and our senior leaders in particular, they get it. And I think it's — in some cases, it may have been a blind spot for us, where we weren't really paying attention to it.
I think the beauty of — you know, as tragic as George Ford's death is and the other events that surround that, the fact that we're taking a hard look at ourselves, and I think it's opened some eyes to some of our airmen who were just — they just weren't — they were unconscious to it, in some aspects.
Let's move to extremism.
The Pentagon's finalizing a report right now that will go into extremism in the ranks and also among veterans and what the military can do with — do about it. And part of that is defining the problem, defining what is extremism.
How important do you think it is that the military decide that members of white supremacist groups and other extremist organizations are banned from being in the military?
Those that don't live up to our core values of integrity, service, and excellence, those that don't stand up and hold themselves to the oath of office they take to the Constitution, those are the ones that we don't need in our military.
It sounds like you're saying, yes, membership should not be allowed.
Well, membership of an extremist organization that goes against our core values, that goes against your oath is not what we need in our military.
On recruitment, should recruits' social media be looked at to find extremist tendencies?
My concern is that individuals will put things on social media that they would never say to your face, OK, and that, to me, is an indicator.
And that's why being able to take a look at social media will also tell you a little bit about the character of the individual that you're bringing into our service.
Meaning it should be disqualifying if someone is using social media to express views that they're not willing to say to your face?
Well, it should be considered.
Whether it's — and as we work through the policy to determine how that plays out exactly, I think it is a factor that we want to take a look at and consider.
Let's move to China.
Yesterday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs admitted that the U.S. — quote — "failed miserably," I think was his words, in a war game against China. Why did it lose? And is this what you mean when you use the phrase that you have used, which is accelerate change or lose?
Well, it is.
I mean, if we fight and try to do things in the traditional manner we have been we have been doing for as long as I have been in the Air Force, 36 years, we will lose. And that's exactly why I wrote accelerate change or lose, because we cannot continue to do the same things the same way and expect a different result against an adversary, a potential adversary that has watched us and studied us for the past couple of decades.
And so we have got to change our approach.
Let's take one aspect of that.
The Air Force for years has relied on bases in Japan and Guam. And, as you have said yourself, the Chinese make a lot of missiles relatively cheaply that are relatively effective, and that means our bases are at risk of Chinese missiles.
So, you're looking to spread out across the Pacific. How's that going?
What I found initially was, the Air Force, we had a lot of good ideas about it and we did a lot of talk, not much action. There's a lot of action now.
And it's — really, it's two parts. It's the physical aspect of being able to move, but it's the mind-set of our airmen.
But it's not just mind-set, right? I mean, Japan is resisting more forces on Japan. Philippines, where the bases would be the closest to the mainland of China, there's political resistance to that as well.
How do you overcome that political resistance? Because it seems like you have to.
Well, part of this is the long-term relationships we have with our allies and partners. And so there's these long-term relationships.
And just like any relationship, there are some ups and downs. And I think the key part is, we have common interests with our allies and partners. And if the tension starts to rise, I think we will be able to count on our allies and partners.
Let's switch to Afghanistan.
If the Taliban try and seize the most important cities, say, Kandahar or Kabul, can airpower from the United States stop them?
Well, part of this is, you can't do it by airpower alone in some cases, and when you're going against this particular — against the Taliban.
How important is it for the future for you to have another base north of Afghanistan in Central Asia?
It does make it easier, partly because it gives us more on-station time. It decreases our air refueling bill to be able to execute.
So, we will stand by. But we're — we have got tankers and airplanes that — and airpower that can operate from where we are right now to support.
General C.Q. Brown Jr., thank you very much.
Appreciate being here today.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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