Gen. Paul Selva, Air Mobility Command commander, delivers a new C-17 Globemaster III April 25, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston – Air Base, S.C.

Gen. Paul Selva, Air Mobility Command commander, delivers a new C-17 Globemaster III April 25, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston – Air Base, S.C. U.S. Air Force photo by SA Dennis Sloan

The Man Under the Flattop: Who is Paul Selva?

Two key military assignments helped position Air Force Gen. Paul Selva to become the next Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff — and perhaps, eventually, the chairman.

Among officers of the same rank, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva seems to have always been the youngest guy in the room.

Throughout his career, he has been among the first promoted “below the zone.” He was the youngest of his peers to achieve the rank of colonel, youngest operations group commander, youngest wing commander, and the list goes on, according to those who have served with Selva during his 35-year military career.

He became a four-star general in his mid-50s, an age when many of today’s generals had only two or three stars pinned on his or her shoulder. Today, he leads U.S. Transportation Command, and oversees all cargo, troop and supply movement for the entire military. His TRANSCOM spends a lot of time hauling a lot of troops and equipment back home from Afghanistan.

After decades of excelling, Selva was nominated by President Barack Obama on Tuesday to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No Air Force general has held either of the top two slots on the Joint Chiefs since Gen. Richard Myers stepped down as chairman in 2005. But current and retired Air Force officers say it’s no surprise that Selva got the presidential nod.

A soft-spoken man who leads with brains, not bravado, Selva has lived the motto of his 1980 graduating Air Force Academy class: “Strive to excel.” He spent the first half of his career flying mammoth cargo planes and aerial tankers. As a young captain, Selva caught the eye of Air Force leaders when he was the company-grade adviser to Gen. John Chain, then the leader of the service’s storied Strategic Air Command.

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As a major in 1993, just after the Cold War ended, Selva published an article in Military Review that warned how military leaders would wrestle with professional integrity as the Pentagon began to shrink. Many of the opinions and predictions offered in the three-page article, “Challenges to Integrity in our Changing Force,” could apply to today’s military as it chooses its path forward in the wake of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“During the budget battles of this decade, our military leaders will publicly face the conflict between loyalty to country and loyalty to service,” Selva wrote. “The highly publicized testimony and public statements of military leaders will be fraught with political overtones.

“The battle of the budget has been billed as more than a fight over weapon systems, roles and missions,” he wrote. “Some characterize it as a battle for the very survival of the services as we know them. With this as a backdrop, our leaders will have to demonstrate that their loyalty to service will not subjugate their loyalty to country.”

As vice chairman, Selva will be front and center in the budget battles between the military services. He will also be at the forefront of strategy development, another area where has excelled throughout his career. He was a member of Defense Secretary William Perry’s elite Strategic Studies Group and then assistant to Andrew Marshall, the then-director of the Office of Net Assessment, an organization that looks at out-of-the-box ways to win future wars. He was director of Air Force strategic planning and has overseen the Air Force portion of the Quadrennial Defense Review.

But it was his time as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s military advisor that has positioned him well to become vice chairman. Pentagon insiders have long said Selva would be a likely candidate for the chairman’s job if Clinton is elected president in 2016.

One other thing has remained consistent thoughout Selva’s career: his haircut. Even though the flattop peaked in popularity before he was born, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair, A Cultural History, Selva has sported the hairdo for decades. Its silver locks are a cross between the haircuts of Gen. Buck Turgidson, the fictional Air Force general in Dr. Strangelove, and Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV. Even Selva pokes fun at his old-school cut. After each trip of his trips as TRANSCOM commander, Selva holds a webcast with members of his command called “View from the Flattop,” in which he discusses his travels.

Other items of interest:

  • In an age of email and text messaging, Selva still likes to pick up the phone and call people, often catching mid-level bureaucrats by surprise.
  • An avid waterskier, Selva once built two wooden kayaks, one for himself and another for his wife, Ricki, herself a graduate of the first female class at the Air Force Academy.