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There’s a Sweeping Changeover Happening Among the US Military's Top Brass

The nominees for chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are already shaking things up.

by Taylor Hall
Jul 15 2015, 9:55pm

Photo by Sean Harp/US Army

There's a sweeping transition happening at the highest level of American military leadership, and two of the new kids on the block - the nominees for chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- are already shaking things up.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been in his position for five months. The Senate Armed Services Committee is reviewing President Barack Obama's nomination of General Joseph Dunford as chairman of the joint chiefs and General Paul Selva as second in command as well as upcoming nominations for new service chiefs for the Navy, Army and Marine Corps.

Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday said the new Pentagon leadership faces "the most diverse and complex array of global crises since the end of WWII."

But Dunford — who would become the highest-ranking member of the United States Armed Forces and principal adviser to the President on military strategy -- made headlines last week by testifying that Russia posed the greatest potential threat to America. On Tuesday, Selva appeared before the committee and reiterated the position that the Russia presents the number one threat to the country — ahead of China, North Korea, Iran and the Islamic State.

Dunford described Russian nuclear capabilities as "nothing short of alarming."

After Dunford's hearing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest quickly distanced Obama from the general's Russia comments, saying that they reflected Dunford's own views and "not the consensus analysis of the president's national security team."

Related: Russia Is Making Tanks Stylish Again

When Selva said the same thing, his comments seemed to catch off guard some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who have spent the last 14 years scrambling to fund counterinsurgency operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Is that opinion held by most of our military upper echelon?" asked Senator Joe Manchin, (Democrat, West Virginia) "We're not hearing an awful lot of dialogue about this relationship or lack of relationship, and now two of our top people who basically are on the verge of being nominated to lead our military forces have identified it, and not hearing anything before, I think it kind of caught all of us by surprise."

When McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asked Selva why he ranked Russia — and China, and Iran, and North Korea — ahead of the Islamic State, the Air Force general said, "Because right now ISIS does not present a clear and present threat to our homeland and to the existence of our nation. It is a threat we must deal with and we must help our regional partners deal with, but it does not threaten us at home."

Watch VICE News' interview with Ashton Carter: 

In June, current Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey updated the National Military Strategy for the first time since 2011, writing about challenges posed by state actors, naming Russia's "hybrid warfare" and China's aggressive land reclamation.

On the dawning of a nuclear Iran deal heralded by the White House, Selva said he viewed Iran as the leading state sponsor of terror, and that sanction relief for Iran would give it more economic resources to fund terrorist groups.

"I am opposed to Iranians possessing a nuclear weapon," Selva said. When asked whether he would stand by his claims in 15 years, Selva clarified: "Ever. We need to have a range of available options with which to respond" to possible threats from Iran, the general said.

Selva and Dunford both noted that continued military and diplomatic cooperation with nations like Russia and China are critical to diffusing the threat they pose.

If confirmed as expected before Congress's recess in August, Selva and Dunford will together lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Much has been made of the speed at which both men have rocketed through the ranks. The 59-year-old Dunford, who served as the top American officer and coalition commander in Afghanistan during the 2013-2014 transition period when Afghan forces took over operations from American troops and is currently the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, rose in just over three years from a single-star brigadier general to four-star rank.

Related: Here's What's Next for the Future of Amphibious Warfare

Selva, head of U.S. Transportation Command since May 2014, spent less than two years before that as leader of the Air Force's Air Mobility Command and a year as vice commander with Pacific Air Forces. While former assistant to then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Selva also served as military assistant to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some say Selva's time as Clinton's military adviser that has positioned him well to become vice chairman, and a likely candidate for the chairman's job if Clinton is elected president in 2016.

The last time the Senate Armed Services Committee saw current Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, the senators slammed the Defense Department leadership and criticized the administration's strategy against the Islamic State as ineffective and delayed.

If confirmed, Dunford and Selva could be back on Capitol Hill this fall to answer similar tough questions and criticism about the ongoing Iraq campaign, integration of women into combat roles, military support for Syrian rebels and Ukrainian forces, as well as the Pacific "pivot," high-tech cyber and space threats, and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and across the Middle East and Africa.

Follow Taylor Hall on Twitter @taylor_a_hall

Photo via DVIDS