- SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — He’s been called a “big teddy bear,” a gruff “football coach” and a “cowboy” who needs to be put out to pasture. But one thing Gen. Michael A. Minihan is not: shy.
Here, where the suburbs of St. Louis meet the cornfields of southern Illinois, resides the four-star commander who, in uncommonly confrontational language for such a senior military officer, has ordered the 110,000 troops under his command to prepare for war.
Two years from now, maybe.
“I hope I am wrong,” he informed them in a January memo that went viral after one of its recipients leaked the document online. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
Minihan’s combustible rhetoric, including a directive for personnel to sharpen their marksmanship skills and “aim for the head,” is red meat for the China hawks in Congress who fear the United States is woefully underprepared should a conflict erupt in that part of the world. It has disturbed some in the Pentagon, however, as the general’s assertiveness has felt startlingly at odds with the Biden administration’s carefully calibrated attempt to reset relations with Beijing. Senior officials nonetheless have stuck by him — and he has pressed forward with an ambitious plan to “explode” into the Pacific in the event of a war.
This profile of Minihan, 56, is based on interviews with the general and 11 others, including members of his staff and Pentagon officials. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer frank assessments of how Minihan’s candor has affected views of him.
At his headquarters in Illinois, Minihan said he “wasn’t being cutesy” with his bellicose memo but stressed that it was meant for an internal Air Force audience, not public consumption.
“There can be no ambiguity on what my expectations are,” Minihan said. “I’m not trying to be somebody that I’m not, nor am I trying to use theater or a pedestal. I’m simply trying to make sure that my command is ready to win if called upon.”
‘Lima Foxtrot Golf’
At 6-foot-5, the silver-haired Minihan cuts an imposing figure. But away from a microphone, he often seems more like a quirky father figure, associates say. The general fires off dad jokes, drives a dented 1966 Chevrolet pickup truck to work, and enthusiastically brags about his wife, Ashley, and their three adult children.
“Mini has a heart of gold,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, said as Minihan was promoted two years ago and assigned to lead Air Force Mobility Command, which oversees the service’s fleet of cargo and tanker planes and the personnel who fly and maintain them. “He’s kind of like a big teddy bear for those that know him.”
Minihan was selected for the job after 10 years in the Pacific, a tenure that included a posting as the No. 2 officer at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which coordinates military operations spanning thousands of miles from the Aleutian Islands to Australia. Brown, since nominated to be Biden’s next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled taking an interest in Minihan’s elevation after watching how he led a sensitive mission into North Korea to recover the remains of American troops who’d gone missing during the war decades ago.
Upon arriving in Illinois, Minihan leveled with his staff about who he was, staff members said. In a one-page handout, the general told his subordinates that he loved surfing and checklists, considered himself a “natural disrupter,” and had learned “the air is thin and there are no parachutes at this level” once you become a general. He concluded with the phrase, “LIMA FOXTROT GOLF,” meaning let’s f—ing go.
The general took charge of Air Mobility Command two months after the haphazard U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan, in which the Air Force’s fleet of C-17 jets and the airmen who flew them were pushed to the brink of exhaustion. While they saved 124,000 people from Taliban subjugation, 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing just outside the international airport in Kabul. Bearing witness to the carnage and desperation left some of his airmen struggling, he said.
Minihan resolved that he needed to set an example, that it was okay to seek help. He reached out to a mental health professional and shared the decision widely. “Warrior heart. No stigma,” he tweeted in January 2022, along with an image of a calendar showing his appointment. It led to the three most uncomfortable days of his career, as he processed some of the challenging moments he has experienced, Minihan said.
“What I discovered is that when you pack a body on ice in the back of C-130 and it smells horrific, and you can’t wash it off you, that’s something to deal with,” he said, misty-eyed. “When you’re in the Pentagon on 9/11, that’s something to deal with. When your squadron is supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2003 to 2006, and your squadron moves hundreds of angels [deceased U.S. troops] … there’s something to talk about.”
Minihan told The Washington Post that one of the most frequent observations he heard from airmen who participated in the evacuation of Afghanistan is that they wish they had known how difficult the conditions would be so they could have better prepared. He feels obligated to make sure they know now “what it’s really going to be” if a conflict breaks out.
“When you are put in situations where you are facing the realities of the gap of what you have versus what you wish you had, that gap is filled with courage and tenacity,” Minihan said in the interview. “And preparing our team to fill that gap on enormous scale is critically important.”
If this comes across as harsh, good’
It is this mind-set that appears to have influenced the general’s grab-you-by-the-lapels style.
Speaking last fall at an Air Force conference, Minihan told a crowd of hundreds of airmen, defense contractors, and civilian officials that he wants his team to “fly it like we stole it.” He went on to deliver a rousing speech and said that “nobody is going to care” what the U.S. military’s plans are for 10 years from now if it loses a war tomorrow.
“Lethality matters most!” he told the crowd. “When you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better! Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.”
Minihan followed up by releasing a 20-page “Mobility Manifesto” that was both urgent and irreverent. “If you are easily offended by intentional crass, please stop reading now,” he wrote in the opening. The document goes on to criticize “excuse-laden admiration for the status quo” and declare that air mobility forces were in “crisis.” While U.S. airmen are the best in the world, he wrote, there is “significant risk” in inaction that requires “revolutionary” moves to ensure that the Air Force can continue to do its part.
If this comes across as harsh, good,” Minihan wrote. “We are not looking for blue skies or smooth air. We are looking to deliver.”
Weeks later, Minihan’s memo predicting war within China drew international attention. He ordered airmen to get their personal affairs in order and to “fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most.”
“Aim for the head” when doing so, he directed.
The Pentagon distanced itself from the remarks, while China’s state-run Global Times cited analysts decrying what they called the U.S. military’s prevalence of “super-hawkish war maniacs.”
One influential retired general, Barry McCaffrey, tweeted that Minihan needed “to be placed on terminal leave,” effectively fired, after showing bad judgment and “cowboy aggression.” Lawmakers hawkish toward Beijing defended the general, with Rep. Michael Gallagher (R.-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on China, saying Minihan should be “commended for directing his Airmen to take the threat seriously and preparing with the urgency that the situation demands.”
One senior U.S. defense official said that he was incredulous upon learning about the memo and wondered whether Beijing would see it as escalatory. Another defense official said Minihan retains the confidence of senior leaders, adding that “when we lose trust in leaders, we remove them from command.”
Brown, now awaiting confirmation to become the Joint Chiefs chairman, told Military.com that he was “disappointed” in aspects of Minihan’s memorandum, but agreed with his sense of urgency.
Minihan’s approach has had impact within an organization that spent the last 20 years flying cargo planes to and from war zones where the airspace was largely uncontested, the general’s staff said. Minihan often makes the point that in any conflict with China, which has developed a sophisticated arsenal of missiles, those lumbering planes would be at much greater risk of coming under attack.
Brig. Gen. Corey Simmons, Minihan’s former chief of staff, compared the general to a “football coach” insisting on holding difficult practices so that game days are easier. Minihan, he said, has directed airmen to prepare for a potential conflict with China with “specificity,” and is “insatiable” in looking for improvement.
“He made the news, right? Not a secret,” said Simmons, the commander of the 618th Air Operations Center at Scott. “That’s internal communication to his team. That was the coach telling his team the expectations for what he wanted to do and that this was real.”
Col. James Young, vice commander of the 618th, said that Minihan also has pressed the Air Force to more fully incorporate cargo aircraft and aerial refuelers in combat exercises. Historically, Young said, there has been a metaphorical “fairy-dusting” of mobility forces in large training missions, with assumptions made they would be safe in a conflict so they could get out of the way and let fighter jets train.
“It was almost like he lit a firecracker and said, ‘Hey, did you read the NDS?’ ” Young said, referring to the U.S. national defense strategy, which identified military competition with China as a primary concern.
Maj. Gen. Darren Cole, a senior officer on Minihan’s staff, said that the two-year timeline for war with China that the general laid out “never” comes up internally. But the sense of urgency, Cole said, does all the time.
“He is way out of ahead of where a lot of people are,” Cole said. “Getting people to realize the world has changed and our operational environment has changed has, I think, been a big undertaking.”
Minihan, for his part, bubbles with enthusiasm when describing experiments his airmen are undertaking. For two weeks in July, thousands fanned out across the Pacific as part of the exercise Mobility Guardian, delivering troops, fuel and supplies while stress-testing the limits on what the aircraft and personnel can do. The idea, he said, was to make sure the Air Force can forcefully and rapidly project power if needed.
Minihan spent eight days circulating the region, including four overnights in a C-17 as it made long flights across the pretend battle space. U.S. personnel used Kadena Air Base in Japan, Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, adding extra external fuel tanks on some aircraft and wearing electronics to assess human performance in the face of exhaustion.
“We’re looking at everything we can do to buy down the risk of coping with fatigue,” Minihan said.
Flat maps of the Pacific do not do justice to the “tyrannies of distance” there, Minihan said. He wants his organization assessing where they can accept additional risk, what equipment already is available that might help, and whether any new technology needs to be developed.
“I, like everybody else, don’t think this war is inevitable,” Minihan said. “ … But, you know, the deterrent factor is born from readiness — as is the decisive victory.”