The Likely Next Air Force Chief—and All the Contenders

Now that President Biden has officially said Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is his choice to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon leaders need to decide who will succeed Brown to become the 23rd Air Force Chief of Staff?

The odds on favorite is Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin, a career mobility and test pilot with an extensive operational and staff background. Allvin maintained a low profile for most of his tenure as the vice, but has had a more public role since the start of the year, apparently laying the groundwork for him to become the face of the force.

Allvin is the 40th Vice Chief of Staff, and would be the 10th of those to become Chief of Staff if he proves to be the choice. He’d also be the third this century, following Gen. David Goldfein, Chief No. 21, and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, No. 18.

As a leader on the Air Staff, Allvin has been a visionary helping to craft the joint force operating concepts advanced by three successive chiefs: Gen. Mark Welsh, No. 20, along with Goldfein and Brown. He helped write “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future” in 2014 and the “Air Force Future Operating Concept” in 2015, both critical precursors to what would become Goldfein’s vision for multi-domain operations and, ultimately, what is now known throughout the services as Joint All-Domain Command and Control. 

More recently, he has been a leading voice tackling the service’s challenges with recruiting and retention.

Surprise selections

But just because Allvin is seen as the clear leading contender doesn’t mean surprises can’t happen. Before Goldfein was selected in 2015, news outlets failed to see him among the main contenders.

Candidates are all but certain to already be four-star generals. With the sole exception of the Air Force’s first chief, Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, every CSAF was a four-star and a career operator. While In at least one case—Chief No. 19, Gen. Norton Schwartz—the eventual choice was already nearing a planned retirement, it’s unlikely that either Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, or Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, will be the choice at this stage. Also out of the running is Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, who lacks the operational background essential to the job.

That leaves just a few generals to watch.

The Favorite

Gen. David W. Allvin — Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force 

Allvin has been vice chief since November 2020, shortly after Brown took the top job. A test pilot with experience in more than two dozen aircraft, Allvin gained most of his command experience in air refueling and mobility units. But he has extensive Pentagon and joint experience, including stints in the Strategy, Plans, and Policy directorate of the Joint Staff.

Having begun his vice chief tour operating largely out of public view, he has come out of the shadows in recent months, championing efforts to eliminate barriers to service and speaking about the service’s contributions to Joint-All Domain Command and Control which he has helped spearhead. He also appeared instead of Brown on a panel at the AFA Warfare Symposium with Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Towberman. Among the past five Air Chiefs, two—Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Gen. David L. Goldfein—did stints as Vice Chief. 


Gen. James B. Hecker — Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa 

Hecker has overseen USAFE at a pivotal time in Europe, taking over not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His command has been on constant watch, with Airmen and aircraft operating in the skies and along the borders to reassure allies and secure NATO’s eastern flank. Hecker headed Air University prior to taking command at USAFE-AFAFRICA. A fighter pilot who flew F-15s and F-22s, he has commanded at the group, wing, and Numbered Air Force levels. Three of the past seven Chiefs of Staff had commanded USAFE: Gen. Mike Ryan, Gen. John Jumper, and Gen. Mark Welsh.  

Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere — Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command 

As the head of AFGSC, Bussiere oversees the Air Force’s two legs of the nuclear triad, both of which are in the midst of massive modernization efforts that started years ago and will continue into the next decade. Under his command, AFGSC rolled out the new B-21 Raider in December 2022, which will be the “backbone” of the bomber fleet for years to come. Bussiere has flown the F-15, B-1, B-2, and F-22, and led the Eighth and Eleventh Air Forces. He was also vice commander of U.S. Strategic Command. He would be the first Chief ever to ascend from Global Strike Command, established in 2009, and the first bomber pilot to become Chief since Gen. David C. Jones in 1974.   

Gen. Mike Minihan — Commander of Air Mobility Command 

Since taking command of AMC in October 2021, Minihan has gained a reputation for bold, brash, inspirational leadership. His “Mobility Manifesto” address at AFA’s Air, Space, and Cyber conference in September 2022 lit up the crowd and launched an ambitious trajectory to prepare AMC’s Airmen for conflict in the Indo-Pacific. Since then, his experiments have yielded 24- and 36-hour sorties in the KC-46, successful operations with limited aircrew, and this summer, the massive “Mobility Guardian” exercise intended to demonstrate air mobility’s reach across the Pacific region this summer. But Minihan probably lost standing when he garnered international headlines for a memo to AMC Airmen that was leaked to the media in January. The memo suggested war with China was likely in 2025 and urged Airmen to brush up on their marksmanship by practicing aiming for the head. The memo was never intended for public consumption, but the negative publicity could prove problematic in confirmation hearings.

Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost — Commander of U.S. Transportation Command 

Van Ovost, a former test pilot who has flown a dozen aircraft types, would be the first woman ever to be Air Force Chief. Prior to leading TRANSCOM, she headed Air Mobility Command and before that was the Air Force’s Director of Staff at the Pentagon. She headed AMC during the record-breaking noncombatant evacuation operation from Afghanistan in 2021 and has overseen the massive logistical enterprise transporting materiel to Ukraine while at TRANSCOM. Van Ovost has also led a reconsideration of TRANSCOM’s posture in the Pacific, and helped to implement the Global Household Goods Contract for transporting troops’ possessions during moves. Two prior TRANSCOM commanders have gone on to become Chief of Staff—Gen. Ronald Fogleman in 1994, and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz in 2008. 

Gen. Anthony J. Cotton — Commander of U.S. Strategic Command 

Having only arrived at STRATCOM in December 2022, Cotton is a missileer whose prior command at Air Force Global Strike Command lasted less than a year before he was nominated to lead STRATCOM. If selected, he would be the first missileer ever to be Chief of Staff. Cotton’s was previously vice chief at AFGSC. He has commanded an Air Force Space Wing and was president of Air University.