President Barack Obama will nominate Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, choosing a widely respected, combat-hardened commander who led the Afghanistan war coalition during a key transitional period during 2013-14, U.S. officials said Monday.
The move cuts short Dunford's service as the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, a job he began last October. But the rapid promotion is one of several that have marked Dunford's fast-tracked military career, which saw him leap from a one-star general to four stars in about three years.
Officials also said Obama is tapping Gen. Paul J. Selva, a top Air Force officer and pilot, to serve as vice chairman. Selva, who has clocked more than 3,100 hours piloting transport and refueling aircraft, is currently the head of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Obama plans to make the announcement at the White House Tuesday, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly ahead of the announcement. Dunford is expected to be easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate and would succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will have served four years as chairman.
Dunford began his career as an infantry officer and has commanded at all levels. He served nearly two years in Iraq, including as head of the Marines' 5th Regimental Combat Team during the 2003 invasion, where he earned the nickname "Fighting Joe."
He is well-connected internationally, often meeting with NATO and other coalition leaders, particularly during his Afghanistan command. His selection signals that even as the U.S. puts more focus on Asia and looks ahead to high-tech cyber and space threats, the administration still believes a strong ground force commander is needed to work through the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and across the Middle East and Africa.
If confirmed, Dunford would be only the second Marine to serve as chairman. Gen. Peter Pace, the first Marine chosen as chairman, served one two-year term from 2005 to 2007, but was not renominated by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates because the Pentagon chief feared a long, difficult Senate hearing focusing on the sharp divisions over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Dunford has been a leading contender for the chairman's job for months, and his time in the commandant's post was critical. Generally, to be considered for the chairman's job an officer must serve as the head of one of the Pentagon's combatant commands or as chief of one of the military services.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wouldn't confirm the selection Monday, but he gave the choice a thumbs-up — a critical factor for an administration that doesn't want to go through a drawn-out Senate confirmation process.
"If it were Gen. Dunford, I've known him very well for many years. He'd an outstanding leader. I'm extremely excited about his selection. He's a combat veteran. He's a warrior," said McCain.
Dunford's most visible role came in 2013 when he was chosen to take over the job as top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. During his 18 months there, Dunford oversaw the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops, the transition to Afghan military lead in combat operations, and the tumultuous Afghan elections that dragged on and stalled efforts to reach an agreement on the U.S. military's future presence in the country.
He left Afghanistan last August, preparing to take on his new role as commandant.
Dunford's rise through the ranks has been rapid, particularly compared to many of his peers, who would normally spend several years at each rank before getting promoted.
In December 2007, he was nominated for a second star, and the rank of major general. But just two months later, before he actually got the formal promotion, he got the nod for a third star and was appointed the deputy Marine Corps commandant, effectively skipping the two-star grade entirely. He held the rank of lieutenant general (three stars) for about two years, until Obama appointed him as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps in October 2010, earning him a fourth star.
Dunford, 59, is a Boston native and holds master's degrees in government from Georgetown University and international relations from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Selva's selection gives a nod to the Air Force, and the increasing emphasis the U.S. military is placing on space, drones, cyber and strategic capabilities as well as the dominant role air strategy has played in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
A 1980 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Selva has held a number of top staff and leadership jobs, including head of Air Mobility Command and vice commander of Pacific Air Forces.