One by one, the next generation of senior military leadership is taking shape.

Last week, President Obama nominated Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford to the be next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Dunford, the current Marine Corps Commandant and the former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has won wide-spread praise, both in Washington and on the battlefield.  If confirmed by the Senate–and that appears to be a virtual certainty–Dunford will become the second Marine to serve as the nation’s senior military officer.

For the Vice-Chairman’s position, Mr. Obama selected Air Force General Paul Selva, the current Commander of U.S. Transportation Command.  Selva, who ran Air Mobility Command (AMC) before moving to the TRANSCOM job, also has Washington connections.  From 2008-2011, he served as the military advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Before that assignment, General Selva was a tanker and transport pilot, a background similar to General Norton Schwartz, the last Air Force Chief of Staff who was a serious contender for the JCS Chairmanship.  

Selva’s nomination was also viewed as a minor rebuff to the “fighter pilot mafia” which has dominated the USAF for the past 30 years.  Eleven of the last 13 Air Force Chiefs of Staff (including officers who held the post on an “acting basis) have come from the fighter community.  But during that same period, only one Air Force officer, General Richard Myers, has served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and two others (General Robert Herres and General Joseph Ralston) have served as Vice-Chairman.  Both Myers and Ralston were fighter pilots; General Herres had a varied career that included time in both fighter and bomber aircraft.

Why haven’t more airmen made it to the very pinnacle of military leadership?  Some have suggested that our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and their focus on ground operations–put senior Army and Marine Corps officers in the spotlight.  But, as Michael Hoffman at observes, that didn’t prevent the selection of Admiral Michael Mullen as JSC Chairman in 2007, or the elevation of two other admirals to the Vice-Chairman’s post since 2005.

Others have pointed to a lack of Air Force generals leading combatant commands, positions that often lead the JCS chairmanship, or the number two job.  But you can also make a case that the USAF hasn’t exactly helped its cause, thanks to long-running problems in its nuclear enterprise.  It has been eight years since nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly transported between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana, but missile and bomber units have been plagued by failed inspections, low morale, cheating scandals and allegations of drug use among crew members.   Never mind that the nation’s nuclear forces had suffered from decades of under-funding and neglect; the Air Force’s inability to get its strategic house in order didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the halls of power.

There were also political battles that went the wrong way.  Squeezed by sequestration, the Air Force decided to retire its dwindling fleet of A-10 attack aircraft–which have been extraordinarily effective in supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Money saved from the A-10 retirement would be diverted to the F-35 program, which has been plagued by long lead times and cost overruns.  Unfortunately for Air Force leaders, the A-10 has lots of friends in the Army, Marine Corps and on Capitol Hill.  Ultimately, the service’s retirement order was rebuffed by Congress; the “Hawg” is still in the inventory and USAF leadership had another black eye.

General Selva’s nomination as Vice-Chairman of the JCS may also offer some idea as to how the service is viewed by political leaders.  Obviously, he’s an outstanding officer, but when an airlift/tanker officer is nominated for such a high-ranking post, it suggests that civilian leaders believe his expertise in those areas is essential–and to some degree, they have a point.  If you want to move troops and equipment quickly to the far corners of the earth, you call TRANSCOM, and more specifically AMC.  And if you need in-flight refueling, the tankers of Air Mobility Command provide the bulk of our capabilities in that area.

But focusing on those platforms has a negative connotation as well.  If you view the Air Force largely in terms of airlift, air refueling and other support functions, there may be less money down the road for other priorities, including the new bomber and nuclear modernization.

That’s not to say General Selva isn’t capable of advocating for the F-35, the next generation bomber, or any other program supported by the JCS.  But when the President and his new SecDef reach past legions of fighter pilot generals and pick a career airlift and tanker officer, it definitely sends signals.

If you don’t believe us, just ask the Navy.  A lot of sailors are still in shock over today’s announcement that Admiral John Richardson will be the next Chief of Naval Operations.

Like Selva, Admiral Richardson is an exceptionally capable officer.  But he also has a rather atypical background for someone selected to run the Navy.  Richardson currently serves as director of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, a key position, though little-known outside the Navy.  Created by the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, the director of nuclear reactors serves an eight-year term–exceptionally long for any flag officer–and it’s typically the last stop before retirement.  Rickover, who knew how to get things done in Washington, designed the post to be insulated from service and Congressional pressures.

Admiral Richardson’s operational background is in submarines, and there was immediate concern over his ability to represent other elements of the Navy, including the surface fleet and aviation.  “Let’s  make sure he’s not just the CNO of undersea,” one Congressional aide told Breaking Defense.  Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, widely recognized as one of the ranking experts on naval affairs in Congress, voiced support for Admiral Richardson, saying he would focus “holistically” on the Navy’s strength, from reinvigorating the surface fleet, to charting the future of naval aviation.

Why did a dark horse candidate like Richardson wind up with the CNO job?  Aside from his personal qualifications, there’s the matter of replacing our Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.  Current estimates peg the cost of each new boomer at $4.9 billion each–and that price is likely to rise.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter has indicated that nuclear modernization is one of his top priorities, and the next-generation SSBN is a key part of those plans.  Admiral Richardson, who has decades of experience in the submarine fleet, will be a forceful advocate for a costly–though essential–program.

And that presents a challenge for the Air Force.  Work on the new bomber is already underway and in a sequestration-driven military budget, that aircraft will eventually compete with the Ohio replacement for funding.  Simply stated, there won’t be enough money to buy all the new bombers the Air Force would like to have, or the new SSBNs on the Navy wish list.  In fact, there will be growing pressure to consolidate our nuclear triad into a dyad, or (perhaps) put all of our strategic strike capabilities into a single platform.  To some degree, the consolidating is already underway; our Minuteman III ICBMs are in their fifth decade of service and there are no plans to replace them.

Which brings us to the next JCS-level appointment that’s on the horizon: a successor for General Mark Welsh III, the Air Force Chief of Staff whose term expires next year.  His replacement will speak volumes about how the service is perceived, and where it is headed.  This much is certain: the next CSAF will need tremendous organizational abilities and salesmanship skills.  Not only will they have to squeeze more flying hours out of an aging aircraft fleet and dwindling personnel base, the new CSAF must also bring the F-35 to full operational capability, and find the money for the next generation bomber.

It’s a tall order, and the Navy’s “doubling down” on the Ohio-class replacement–by elevating Admiral Richardson to CNO–won’t make the top Air Force job any easier.  The looming budget battle was illustrated in yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) mark-up of the defense priorities bill.  Led by the committee chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the SASC trimmed $860 million from three top-priority Air Force programs, and moved it to pay things the service doesn’t want.  The aforementioned long range strike (LRS) bomber, now in the early stages of development, took one of the biggest hits, losing $460 million.

Meanwhile, the Navy had a good day in the Senate, securing $1.2 billion for 12 additional F/A-18 Super Hornets; $1 billion for six more F-35Bs and almost $200 million in jamming upgrades for the Hornet fleet.