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Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., America’s first Black Air Force chief, on race, tech, and the trouble with AI

General Charles Q. Brown Jr. became the first Black chief of staff of the Air Force during a perilous moment for the United States. In the time between Brown’s nomination and his unanimous confirmation by the Senate, George Floyd died under the knee of officer Derek Chauvin on the street in Minneapolis. While angry protests and a national reckoning over race unfolded around the country, Brown made the difficult decision to speak out with unusual frankness and depth of feeling for a military leader.

“I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope but also comes with a heavy burden,” he said in a video addressed to Air Force personnel. “I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.”

Brown also entered his role as the U.S. was navigating a rapidly evolving global threat environment. The four-star general spent a good part of his career leading the Air Force’s fight against nonstate terror groups, chiefly ISIS, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now the U.S. is increasingly threatened by major state actors, mainly a resurgent Russia and emergent China.

These new opponents may attack in ways that aren’t necessarily addressable using fighter planes and missiles. It’ll be Brown’s job to oversee the Air Force’s shift in investment away from legacy platforms and toward technologies that will allow the U.S. to compete in the battle theaters of the future.

I spoke to the general about these emerging threats, the Air Force’s work with U.S. tech startups to develop new defense systems, and his own evolving views on race and politics over a year that included the death of George Floyd and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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