That approach is getting its first test.
Brown was less than a week into the new job on Oct. 7 when he woke up to an early morning phone call informing him that Hamas had launched a deadly assault on Israel. He spent the day in calls with other senior military officers and monitoring reports of the unfolding — and escalating — violence.
The Hamas attack and the fighting that has followed puts Brown in a challenging position — that of overseeing U.S. support for two foreign wars at once: Israel and Ukraine. And he’ll likely make more of his moves behind-the-scenes than Milley did.
Brown is not one for making news. In public appearances, he typically sticks to the facts, and rarely displays emotion. Brown did not speak publicly about the Hamas attack until a few days after it occurred, leaving his civilian counterparts to take the lead on messaging.
Milley was undeniably one of the most consequential Joint Chiefs chairs in modern history, credited with steering the military through America’s most significant crises of the last few years — the Covid-19 pandemic, an insurrection and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But his off-the-cuff comments at times made him a lightning rod, and, some say, politicized the military.
Milley used his final speech as chair late last month to give an impassioned address stressing that troops take an oath to the Constitution and not to a “wannabe dictator.” It was seen as a slap at his former boss, President Donald Trump, who had suggested Milley should be executed.
Brown, meanwhile, did not make any public comments even when his confirmation to be chair was delayed for four months due to a Republican senator’s monthslong hold on senior military promotions.
Some analysts say Brown’s quiet approach will enable military leaders to keep their heads down and focus on the job at hand.
“I think it will be so good for the relationship between the American public and its military, and between political leaders and the military, to have someone who listens as carefully and talks as little as Gen. Brown does,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute
But he’ll also be facing new challenges.
Brown will now have to balance American military assistance for hot wars in Europe and the Middle East at a time when U.S. defense contractors were already struggling to keep up with demand from the Ukraine conflict. And he’ll have limited lieutenants to help him, because of Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s ongoing hold on senior promotions over the military’s abortion travel policies.
He’s already working on juggling the “two wars” part. After advising on the decision to dispatch an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean on Sunday, Brown quickly pivoted back to Ukraine.
That Monday, he departed for Brussels to meet with European leaders to urge them to keep up the pace of military support for Kyiv.
In remarks to reporters on the trip, Brown projected confidence, saying the U.S. military can support the needs of both Israel and Ukraine.
“No one says we’re going to do one challenge at a time. And so we as a department, we’ve got to be able to address all these challenges,” Brown said.
Brown has experience jumping from crisis to crisis. He led U.S. Air Forces Central Command when then-President Barack Obama launched the first American airstrikes against the Islamic State in 2015. And he commanded Pacific Air Forces when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted in China in early 2020.
But Milley’s high-profile approach helped to reassure the American people that the military would not blindly follow illegal orders during Trump’s tumultuous term. If Trump is reelected in 2024, Brown will have to figure out his own way to navigate an unpredictable commander-in-chief.
And Milley, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, created the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, and forged relationships with counterparts across Europe that have been crucial to rallying support to Kyiv.
Still, Brown is no automaton. After George Floyd died in police custody in the summer of 2020, Brown — who was awaiting Senate confirmation to become the first Black chief of staff of the Air Force — released an emotional video talking about his experience as a Black airman.
There are also signs Brown may be leaning further forward in public appearances. Speaking to the traveling press, Brown opened up about his reactions in the first hours of the Hamas attack.
“It was one thing, when I first got the initial reports, just verbally,” Brown said of the conflict in Israel. “But then, I get to see the images on television. And I’ve been pretty much stuck … next to my phone with the TV watching, pretty much all weekend. And it’s horrific.” Brown said it reminded him of the early stages of the air campaign against ISIS.
Current and former colleagues describe Brown as a good listener who prefers to absorb all the information before making a decision, but then takes action when necessary. And they say he is adept at making sure no one feels left out of the process.
Those skills have already come in handy in building support for the war in Ukraine in his former role as Air Force chief of staff, his colleagues say.
“More often than not it was about trying to build a certain amount of consensus, ie, get people to have skin in the game,” said retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa until mid-2022, who worked closely with Brown, then Air Force chief of staff, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
And some foreign partners might welcome a change from Milley’s tendency to speak his mind. The former chair ruffled some feathers last fall when he said during an appearance at the Economic Club of New York that a victory by Ukraine may not be achieved militarily, and proposed that winter may provide an opportunity to begin negotiations with Russia.
The comments sent senior administration officials scrambling to assure Ukraine it wasn’t undercutting its goal of expelling the Russian invaders.
Brown’s more discreet approach could also change the dynamic between the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders. Austin has also been considered the more reticent one compared to Milley; now the defense secretary could draw more headlines.
That’s already happening. Austin made a surprise visit to Tel Aviv last week, while Brown flew home to Washington. In a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart in Tel Aviv last week, Austin appeared to warn the Israeli government against “revenge.”
“Terrorists like Hamas deliberately target civilians, but democracies don’t,” Austin said. “This is a time for resolve and not revenge, for purpose and not panic and for security and not surrender.”