A former F-16 pilot who earned the call sign “Swamp Thing” after he ejected into the Florida Everglades when his plane was struck by lightning takes over as Joe Biden’s chief military adviser on Sunday.

General CQ Brown takes over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the high-profile and polarising Mark Milley at a time when air defence has become crucial in the Ukraine war and as the US faces off against China. 

Current and former colleagues expect that Brown, a more soft-spoken presence than Milley, will strive to keep the military out of the political fray after relations broke down between his predecessor and former president Donald Tump.

“CQ was always scrupulous about that and I would expect no less, he understands the role of the military in a republic and I think he will do that well,” said Heather Wilson, who was secretary of the Air Force from 2017 to 2019.

Milley was critical in marshalling assistance for Ukraine and helping US president Joe Biden thread the needle between aiding Ukraine and avoiding war with Russia. 

But his tenure was marked by controversy when, in 2020, he accompanied then-president Trump on a televised procession from the White House through Lafayette Square while in uniform during raging protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. The incident was widely criticised as a photo op after the authorities had used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of protesters.

Milley later apologised and has repeatedly stressed his commitment to keeping the military out of politics. But while his admirers hail Milley for navigating Trump’s efforts to upend democracy and the rule of law, detractors say he was too political in the role. After falling out of favour with Trump, Milley developed a close relationship with Biden.

CQ Brown, with Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and defence secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as the man he will be replacing — Mark Milley
CQ Brown, with Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and defence secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as the man he will be replacing — Mark Milley © Nathan Howard/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Brown, who will be the second African American to be the military’s chief officer, also had a legacy-defining moment during the 2020 protests after Floyd’s death. Just days before Congress was set to vote on his promotion to be the military’s first black chief of staff of the Air Force, he released a video in which he spoke emotionally about the protests and the challenges he faced as a black man in the US military.

Brown will hold the role for four years, meaning that he too may serve under Trump, the leading Republican candidate, should he win the 2024 election.

Ahead of Milley’s retirement, Trump issued a statement on his Truth Social platform suggesting the general should be put to death for going behind his back to communicate with China at the tail-end of his administration. Milley has denied any wrongdoing in the calls, in which he is alleged to have assured his People’s Liberation Army counterpart that the US would not launch an attack against China.

Milley told 60 Minutes this week he will “take appropriate measures to ensure my safety and the safety of my family”.

At Brown’s swearing-in on Friday, Milley said: “We don’t take an oath to a wannabe-dictator . . . And we are not easily intimidated.”

Milley will be remembered as brash, outspoken and garrulous, while Brown is a self-described introvert. Current and former colleagues say he is often the last to speak in meetings.

“He’s a guy who takes it all in and then makes up his mind and isn’t quick to immediately tell you what he thinks because he wants to know what you think first,” said Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force from 2013 to 2017, who worked most closely with Brown while he was running the air war in the campaign against ISIS.

Brown values candour and often tells colleagues that he wants to have “the meeting after the meeting”, said Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, the Air Force Director of Staff.

“[Brown] doesn’t want us to be in a position where we’re litigating things after the fact because someone was holding back information,” he said.

A former commander of Pacific Air Forces, Brown will be the chief US military officer in 2027 — the year that Xi Jinping has ordered China to be ready to invade Taiwan, though some US military leaders have predicted it could happen as early as 2025.

As the head of the Air Force he pushed to change how the service prepares for a possible war against China, which he named “Accelerate Change or Lose”. He has tried to move quickly to reshape the Air Force’s structure and shift from using outdated aircraft that he and other leaders view as poorly suited for future warfare.

During trips as the Air Force chief of staff, usually in a C-37 business jet, Brown liked to get in the cockpit and perform take-offs and landings, aides said. He told an audience at Auburn University earlier this year that his wife, a frequent travelling companion, is the one who got to judge his performance.

Brown grew up in an Army family and credits his father, a retired colonel who served in Vietnam, for encouraging him to apply for a reserve officers’ training corps scholarship to attend Texas Tech University and to remain in the programme when he flirted with quitting as a freshman.

Brown liked to assure people he is a “regular guy,” said JoAnne Bass, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

In his current residence, next door to the chairman’s residence, known as Quarters Six, where he will soon move, he still uses the same smoker he purchased as a young officer stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base.

“That he still has and uses a smoker to cook brisket he bought at Kmart 20-something years ago just speaks to him as a human being like all of us — and so very humble,” Bass said.

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