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Following Gen. Lloyd Austin's nomination to lead Central Command, a handful of fellow generals have emerged as possible front-runners to be the Army's next vice chief of staff.
The Army remains tight-lipped about a successor for Austin, but officers seen as likely candidates include Gen. Robert Cone, Gen. Charles Jacoby, Lt. Gen. John Campbell, Lt. Gen. David Perkins and Gen. James Thurman.
Regardless of who is selected, the Army is tasked with filling one of its most important jobs.
"It's the most difficult job in the Army, far more so than the chief," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former commander of U.S. Southern Command. "He runs the Army, meaning its budgets and programs. There couldn't be a more crucial job in the Army to get the right guy in there."
Retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, vice president for education for the Association of the United States Army, agreed.
The vice chief position is "a critical position right now, with all of the budget changes and the reshaping of the Army," Swan said. "He's essentially the chief operating officer of the Army. And while it's a blow to lose Gen. Austin, it does provide an opportunity for some others to move up at a key time and help us get through this very uncertain period that's ahead of us."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is doing a good job of managing his generals, said Swan, a West Point classmate of Odierno's.
"He's got a pretty good bench that's been developed over the last five to seven years that he can reach into for key positions," Swan said. "You want to have officers who can fill these key positions in the joint commands, as well as in the Army."
Army officials said they expect Austin, who became vice chief in January, to assume his duties as CENTCOM commander on March 1, pending his confirmation by the Senate.
His departure is one of a series of pending general officer moves scheduled to take place in the first half of 2013.
Cone, commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command, and Jacoby, the head of Northern Command, have been cited as strong candidates to be the next vice chief.
McCaffrey praised both generals as "world-class" and "eminently qualified" for the job.
"Since [Cone] was a one-star, he's had this aura around him," McCaffrey said. "He's one of the most frightfully intelligent people I've ever met in my life. He's possible, but do you want to move the CG of TRADOC? The TRADOC enterprise is crucial to restructuring the Army."
Cone would be an "excellent candidate," Swan said.
"He's been more or less at Gen. Odierno's right hand since Gen. Odierno came onboard in looking at what the Army of 2020 is going to shape up to be," he said. "As the TRADOC commander, he's got a huge role in that. He comes well-prepared, and, frankly, in sync with the chief of staff of the Army."
Jacoby would be a "superb choice," McCaffrey said.
"He's one of the finest officers I've met in my life," he said.
Among other four-stars, Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of Forces Command, has been nominated to lead Africa Command, while Gen. Carter Ham, commander of AFRICOM, has announced his plans to retire.
Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, also has been floated as a possible candidate for vice chief. A former deputy chief of staff for operations (G-3) who also commanded FORSCOM, Thurman has the right tools for the vice chief job, Swan said.
But it would be unusual to move someone from the job Thurman holds back to the Pentagon to be the No. 2 officer of the Army, he said.
"My own personal view is it's hard to come back from a command billet at the four-star level, like Korea, and then move into the vice chief of staff job," Swan said. "It's just a difficult thing to do. After these people have been at, essentially, the pinnacle of military command, it's hard to go back into what is essentially a staff position or a second-in-command kind of position."
The same applies to Jacoby, Swan said.
"A lot of combatant commanders, whether it's Pacific Command, European Command, it's rare for one of them to come back and do a service job," he said.
Another one of Swan's picks as a strong contender for the job is Campbell, the Army G-3.
At least one media outlet, Foreign Policy magazine, citing two sources close to the selection process, reported that Campbell will be nominated for the job. The Army would not confirm the report as of Dec. 13.
Campbell's tenure as G-3 gives him the right skills for the job, Swan said.
"He's the G-3, so he is integral in the day-to-day operations of the Army," he said.
There also is precedent for moving the Army G-3 into the vice chief job: Retired Gen. Richard Cody took that path, as did Gen. Eric Shinseki, who eventually retired after serving as chief of staff and is now secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Campbell is "very capable," McCaffrey said, and "if you've been the G-3, you know every program in the [Pentagon]."
Campbell was recently nominated to lead FORSCOM, but "they could divert him," McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey said Perkins, commander of the Combined Arms Center, "strikes me as the best in a generation."
"He is just about one of the most impressive military guys that's come out of the war, bar none," he said. "And I'd rather move the CAC commander than the TRADOC commander."
The Army doesn't lack for strong candidates to be vice chief, McCaffrey said.
"The Army's about to shed tens of thousands of soldier positions. It's in a strategic withdrawal from Afghanistan," he said. "There's no lack of candidates. The good news is these guys are all spectacular, [and] after more than 10 years of war, these guys have seen it all. They'll bring a field soldier's perspective to the job, which is helpful."
The Army has had a string of strong vice chiefs, Swan said.
"We got spoiled with Pete Chiarelli and Dick Cody before him," he said. "But frankly, whoever [Odierno] selects, he's got enough depth in the general officer corps to get a good one in there.
"Army officers have been fighting the last 10 years," Swan added. "They've got tremendous experience in Afghanistan [and] Iraq, and that experience should be proliferated to other commands around the world."