President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations and a leader in the special operations community, to serve as the Air Force’s next vice chief of staff.
If confirmed by the Senate, Slife would take over as vice chief from Gen. David Allvin, who is nominated to become the Air Force’s top officer. Slife would also advance to the rank of four-star general.
Slife is set to become the No. 2 officer in the third-largest branch of the armed forces, managing an approximately $185 billion budget and more than 647,000 uniformed airmen and civilians. He would inherit a sweeping effort to modernize the service’s inventory of decades-old aircraft, adapt the force to the digital era and encourage young Americans to enlist.
His nomination may usher in a new era of its own: If the Senate confirms both Allvin and Slife, it will mark the first time in more than a decade that neither the Air Force chief of staff or its vice chief hail from a fighter background.
The Air Force did not immediately comment on Biden’s pick.
Sources have described Slife as a strategic thinker who prioritizes more effective airpower over parochial interests — a trait that can be a boon as various Air Force commands lobby for room in the annual budget.
One retired general told Air Force Times in May he viewed Allvin as the “idea guy” and Slife as the executor of those plans.
“He’s not very patient. He’s not willing to look at things and shrug his shoulders,” the retired general said of Slife.
Slife has become a face of the service’s plan to overhaul how it deploys airmen around the world, known as “force generation,” for a new era of war. The vision aims to make the service more responsive and capable by training airmen to handle tasks outside their usual lane, deploying as cohesive groups and adhering to a more predictable schedule than in the past.
As vice chief, he would play a larger part in vetting the Pentagon’s acquisition plans as a member of the top-level Joint Requirements Oversight Council. He would also work closely with the deputy secretary of defense and put his own stamp on the Air Force’s “Vice Chief’s Challenge,” an annual innovation competition, among other roles.
The former helicopter and drone pilot led Air Force Special Operations Command for more than three years, and served as the vice commander and chief of staff at U.S. Special Operations Command.
While in charge of AFSOC, he began laying the foundation for a new chapter in the service’s most elite community of warfighters. He reimagined what airmen may be called upon to do after decades at war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and has envisioned a more digitally savvy, diverse command that could hold its own in a potential conflict with China.
Those ideas haven’t always been popular. Last year, Slife fended off accusations in an anonymous letter posted to social media that leadership pushed a female candidate through the all-male special tactics training for the sake of scoring political points — a claim he denied.
An internal investigation found that conflicting fitness standards within the enterprise contributed to an appearance of favoritism.
Slife, then the top officer at AFSOC, pushed back on claims that the organization is growing soft.
“We do make changes in how we train airmen in order to improve the effectiveness of our training, but we do not lower our standards. Period,” he wrote in January 2022.
Over the course of his career, he has flown more than 3,100 hours in the MH-53 Pave Low combat search-and-rescue helicopter, the MQ-1 Predator attack drone and other airframes.
That record has earned him top honors like the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Defense Superior Service Medal, awarded by the secretary of defense for outstanding command or work in a top-level Pentagon office; the Bronze Star, given for heroic or meritorius achievement in military operations against an armed enemy; and the Air Medal, awarded for meritorious acts in flight.
Slife joined the Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Auburn University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1989. He later received master’s degrees in aeronautics from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and organizational management from George Washington University.
He spent his first years in the Air Force flying, then instructing others, on the UH-1 and MH-53 helicopters. He rose through multiple command stints at the squadron, group and wing level, including the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, from 2011 to 2013.
Slife held leadership and planning roles at U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. Central Command, and worked in multiple acquisition offices based at the Pentagon, before arriving at SOCOM headquarters in Florida in 2017. He returned to Hurlburt Field to lead AFSOC in 2019.
It’s unclear when Slife may be able to move into his new job.
The Pentagon and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., are embroiled in a monthslong standoff over the Biden administration’s reproductive health care policies that allow troops to seek abortions in states where they are legal. The Pentagon can help cover the cost of travel for those appointments but does not use federal dollars to subsidize the procedures themselves.
Tuberville has blocked more than 300 military confirmations from moving forward since February, and plans to continue doing so until the Pentagon ends its policy. Military officials and lawmakers say the pause jeopardizes national security and upends the lives of hundreds of military families.
The Senate has continued holding confirmation hearings to advance the military’s top brass where possible. Allvin will go before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 12. The committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for Slife.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.