One of the first major uniformed military appointments to be made by the president next year is the head of the Middle East headquarters operation, a decision that could offer clues to how the U.S. would address a military conflict with Iran.
It will fall to the head of the U.S. Central Command to fine-tune war plans should a military conflict with Iran erupt, and it also would have to draft plans for a no-fly zone or other military operation in Syria, should the U.S. elect to intervene there.
Centcom, as the Middle East headquarters is known, traditionally has been led by Army and Marine Corps generals, but some current and former defense officials say an Air Force or Navy pick should be considered to best prepare for the type of war the U.S. could undertake.
Marine Gen. James Mattis is the current commander, and many Pentagon insiders say that Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the current Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and a former top commander in Iraq, is the leading contender for the job. Gen. Mattis is due to step down next summer, but the jockeying to succeed him has already begun among the services.
Current and former defense officials say the White House should turn to an Air Force general or Navy admiral to lead the command, bringing a different kind of strategic thinking than ground officers.
"Nobody has discussed a large scale ground invasion of Iran…that is both politically and militarily off the table," said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning think tank. "It makes sense you would want people whose professional experience begins with service from the Air Force or Navy."