The process of selecting, vetting, and nominating a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is often viewed as highly idiosyncratic—revolving around “politics” (however defined), rotation among the military services, or simply trying to choose the best flag officer. However, there is an underlying pattern to the nomination, irrespective of the character of an administration, its policies, or its personalities. Key decision-making points are knowable and can be studied systematically. The following is based on the statistical analysis of 17 selections from 1949 to 2007 involving 199 four-star officers potential nominees; of these, 47 were identified as having been on administration short-lists.
The Selection Process
The structure of the selection process has remained largely stable since the Chairman position was created in 1949. While each administration has its own approach, it has consistently involved both the White House and the Secretary of Defense. This largely has to do with the fact that the chairman is the principal military advisor to both the President and the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary frequently is more involved in the selection and vetting process because he knows and has ready access to the prospective candidates and the Chairman works with him on a much more regular basis. There are four general patterns to the process:
- President directed (4 of 17)
- Secretary of Defense directed (4 of 17)
- Secretary of Defense (primary)/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed (7 of 17)
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (primary)/Secretary of Defense directed (2 of 17).
It is customary for the Secretary of Defense to vet prospective candidates and assemble an initial short-list. Sitting chairmen are not usually involved in this process if appointed by the previous administration—especially one of a different political party—but are involved more directly within the same administration that appointed them. The involvement of the president in this process is dependent upon his level of interest and knowledge of prospective candidates.
Presidents typically interview general or flag officers from a short-list, but the length of the list can fluctuate depending upon desired outcomes. President George W. Bush, for example, interviewed five candidates in 2001, all of whom had been vetted by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Conversely, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown presented President Jimmy Carter with one name in 1978 and had one backup name; both had been selected by Brown himself without substantive White House input. The 1974 selection of General George S. Brown had a similarly low level of involvement from a White House that was then embroiled in Watergate.
The Vetting Process
While the vetting process has remained largely unchanged, the comprehensiveness of the vetting has fluctuated. Sometimes that indicates an administration’s general management philosophy, but it often has more to do with how well acquainted the President and Secretary of Defense are with the generals and admirals alongside whom they work. President Dwight Eisenhower’s career in the Army, for example, allowed him better direct knowledge of the military’s senior officers than most presidents. Time serving as Vice President helped Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon become aware of the officers from which they had to choose. Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, had served as Secretary of the Air Force during the Johnson Administration giving him additional insight.
A more extensive vetting process takes place when such prior knowledge does not exist, often in the beginning of a new administration. For example, Thomas C. Reed was appointed by the Reagan Administration in 1982 as a special consultant to the national security advisor to vet general officers inherited from the Carter administration. Reed, who had served as Secretary of the Air Force in the Nixon Administration, performed his duties with the support of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and shared the results of his work with him and White House staff. Reed systematically interviewed 40-some senior civilian defense officials from three prior administrations, asking them who they would recommend for chairman. Each respondent was asked to recommend a name in “yes,” “maybe,” “no,” and “absolutely not” categories. While the records of individual general officers were also studied, this process helped reveal a hidden support network for General John W. Vessey who would not normally have been considered since he was then Vice Chief of the Staff for the U.S. Army.
In 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld brought retired Vice Admiral M. Staser Holcomb back to the Pentagon as a civilian advisor to assist with vetting the general officers the Bush administration had inherited from the Clinton administration. Holcomb presided over a process that evaluated more than 150 officers for chairman and vice chairman and interviewed 33 officers at the three- and four-star ranks. This process was nested in a larger effort to provide civilian management of general officer succession across the U.S. Department of Defense. The vetting process was assisted by the only documented example of individual qualities that a Secretary of Defense explicitly sought in the chairman:
1. Broad operational background (experienced both in combat and major contingencies and in a senior command overseas)
2. Intellect and innovativeness
3. Candor and forthrightness (willingness to disagree, then effectively support the decisions made)
4. Experience in and understanding of the Washington arena
5. Conceptual and managerial leadership in change and transformation
6. Practical experience with how the roles of the service chiefs, Joint Staff, and unified commanders-in-chiefs differ
7. Credibility with the public, the Congress, and the media
8. Strong sense of ethics and trustworthiness
9. Support of the principle of civilian control of the military
10. Compatibility with the Secretary, the President, and the Vice President.
Selecting the Nominee
It is customary for the Secretary of Defense to assemble a short-list of candidates for the president to evaluate. Presidents may interview candidates on these short-lists or simply concur with the Secretary’s recommendation, depending on their knowledge of the candidates or deference to the Secretary. Two-thirds of the short-lists studied have consisted of one or two names, with the remainder having three or more. Research indicates that choosing the chairman by “rotating it among the services” is statistically significant in creating the short-list but is not significant in the final choice of the nominee. By no means is such rotation an iron rule, and there have been five instances where the same service has followed itself: 1960–1970, Lemnitzer, Taylor, Wheeler (Army); 1989–2001, Powell, Shalikashvili, Shelton (Army); and 1974–1982, Brown, Jones (Air Force). General Colin Powell explicitly “recommended Shalikashvili [in 1993] because I wanted to bury the principle of rotation among the services.” Of the 19 chairmen nominated since 1949, 9 came from the Army (47 percent), 4 from the Navy (21 percent), 4 from the Air Force (21 percent), and 2 from the Marine Corps (11 percent). Additionally, more than half—10—were Chiefs of Staff for their service when nominated, and about one-quarter—5—were combatant commanders. Of the remainder, two were Vice Chairmen, one was the military representative to the President, and one was a Vice Chief of Staff.
Final Nominee and Short-List Characteristics
Candidates who have made it to the short-list typically agree with the administration’s policy priorities (regional, functional, and managerial). In general, they are based in Washington, D.C. when chosen, come from a service that has not had the chairmanship in a while, and have served as a military aide to a senior civilian official. They also tend to have received congressional support and be relatively new to the position that made them eligible for the Chairmanship (suggesting administrations quickly promote their own nominees). Final nominees tend to possess these characteristics most strongly and often have been endorsed by the outgoing chairman. In the case of a change of political parties in the White House, they also may have dissented against the previous administration’s policies consistent with rendering expert military advice. General Vessey, for instance, argued against President Carter’s plan to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea. His views echoed the Reagan administration’s perspective, which helped him get selected.
Finalists also tend to be regarded as the “best” officer of their peer group. Personal or professional scandals quickly derail candidates, as does publicly breaking with an administration’s priorities or leaders. No Chairman has ever come from Central, Southern, or Northern Commands. Only one has come from Special Operations Command. Only Presidents Eisenhower and George W. Bush have selected three different chairmen. Three have not completed their four-year terms: Generals Nathan F. Twining (Air Force), Lyman Lemnitzer (Army), and John W. Vessey (Army).
The Role of Congress
The Senate tends to defer to the President when it comes to selecting the chairman. The position is advisory, resides in the executive branch, is of short duration, and deals principally with foreign and defense issues. Expressions of congressional interest are rare and often take place at the beginning of an administration. Advice is usually of a general nature, given mostly but not exclusively by senators from the president’s own party. Senator John Tower’s (R-TX) suggestion to President Ronald Reagan that he incorporate U.S. Marine Corps candidates in the selection process prompted the inclusion of three Marines in 1982. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) effectively vetoed the re-nomination of General Peter Pace to a second term in 2007. Senators also provide useful insights about prospective candidates whether by elaborating on their record or bringing other candidates to the attention of an administration. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) commended the views of General David Jones on the Panama Canal Treaty and recommended him to President Carter. Every administration informally floats the names of prospective Chairman to key congressional leaders.
The Next Chairman
The selection of an eventual successor for current Chairman General Joe Dunford could be unusual, in that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has recent and direct experience, as a peer, with many of the prospective candidates. While former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army General George C. Marshall had similar if not greater knowledge of his former military colleagues when he served as a Secretary of Defense from 1950 to 1951, he did not preside over a selection for chairman. Recent changes to the National Defense Authorization Act bar the vice chairman from “fleeting up” to chairman. In addition, the term of service for both positions has been extended from two, two-year terms to a single four-year term.
The inability to nominate the current vice chairman, Air Force General Paul J. Selva, increases the chances that the next chairman may come from that service. There may be a feeling within the Air Force that their service would have naturally been considered for the chairman position in a “normal” selection process. Also, the Air Force has not held the position since 2005, the longest drought among the services. Further, with current and former Marine general officers currently occupying the positions of chairman, Secretary of Defense, and chief of staff to the president, it is considered less likely the next chairman will come from that service.
Another factor for consideration is that U.S. national security strategy is shifting away from irregular wars of counterinsurgency and returning to peer-to-peer competition—with a greater emphasis on the cyber domain as well as space (both of which increase the odds an Air Force officer will be nominated). This refocus is similar to the post–Vietnam War period where the United States turned its attention back to strategic competition with the Soviet Union, leading to the nomination of two Air Force generals in 1974 and 1978. However, unlike that period, the U.S. is still involved in irregular wars around the world suggesting that a possible vice chairman may come from a service, such as the U.S. Army, which focuses on ground combat.
 Research for this paper was undertaken for a Ph.D. in Political Science and included visiting nine presidential libraries, eight oral history programs, and conducting twenty-one interviews including with five former Secretaries of Defense and four former chairmen. Additionally, one former president, vice president, and National Security Advisor were also interviewed. The memoirs of all four-star general officers, Secretaries of Defense, and Presidents since 1940 to 2007 were also evaluated.
 M. Staser Holcomb, “Choosing the Chairman,” Proceedings, 128/2/1 (February 2002), 2.
 Holcomb, “Choosing the Chairman.”
Lieutenant Commander Green is a reserve officer with the U.S. Navy and, as a civilian, is a Defense Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and received his Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University in 2012. He is the author or co-author of three books about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.