By Aaron Mehta, Posted on www.defensenews.com

WASHINGTON — When Gen. Mark Welsh gives his keynote address at this year’s annual US Air Force Association symposium outside of Washington, he will be making his final appearance at the show as the top uniformed official in the service.

Welsh, who took office in August 2012, is expected to retire next summer. So for those who watch the service closely, the horse race for his replacement is officially on.

Obviously, nothing has been decided and factors could change quickly. But talks with more than a half dozen sources inside and outside the Pentagon found consensus around certain candidates already forming.

All the names come with the caveat that a decision on the next chief is made with input from the service secretary, the White House and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The latter is the real wild card here, as Carter has shown a willingness — some have described it as a desire — to find out-of-the-box candidates.

Both of Carter’s choices for Navy and Army chief have been considered long shots that flew in the face of tradition. In particular, the choice of Adm. John Richardson to move from chief of naval reactors to CNO has been a controversial one, as he is the first director of Naval Reactors to lead the Navy, something considered a sacred trust within the service.

When it comes to Welsh’s replacement, the early public consensus has coalesced in the last year around Gen. Lori Robinson, who has had a meteoric rise inside the service.

In June of 2012, just before Welsh took office, Robinson was a two-star and was named deputy commander, US Air Forces Central Command; less than a year later, she pinned on her third star in May of 2013 when she was promoted to vice commander, Air Combat Command.

In October 2014, she pinned on her fourth star and took over as commander, Pacific Air Forces. With the PACAF assignment, Robinson not only became the first US female four-star to command combat forces, but assumed an extremely prominent position, given the focus of the Obama administration on the so-called “pivot” to the Pacific.

“It is a reinforcement of our presence here in the region,” Robinson told sister publication Air Force Times about the pivot. “It’s a re-commitment of our engagement with our partners and allies.”

Robinson is also reportedly a favorite of Deborah Lee James, who as secretary of the Air Force has worked extensively to expand the profile of women in the service.

The majority of those interviewed for this piece identified Robinson as the odds-on favorite, and none raised objections about her personally, with most quick to praise her intelligence.

However, there are a few factors that could work against Robinson. The most obvious is her quick rise — it would be nearly unheard of for someone to go from getting a third star to being chief of a service in about three years.

Additionally, and for the internal politics of the Air Force, perhaps more damaging, is that Robinson is not a pilot. And while her background as a senior air battle manager with more than 900 hours aboard the E-3B/C and E-8C means she has plenty of experience with battlefields, one source questioned whether the lack of combat pilot experience would cost her respect among her fellow four-stars.

If not Robinson, then who?

Gen. Darren McDew, who spent the last year as head of Air Mobility Command, was considered a more likely candidate before he accepted a position as head of US Transportation Command last month. It would be unusual for him to move back to the Air Force so quickly after such a move, but sources argue that TRANSCOM is not a particularly hard job to fill if the need arose.

“How critical is TRANSCOM right now, without a major logistical movement at hand? You could move in and out right now in a way you couldn’t in 2006,” one source said. “That job won’t keep McDew out of the running.”

Like Robinson, McDew lacks a fighter pilot background, having flown support aircraft like the KC-135 tanker and C-17 transport. Sources indicated, however, that this is less an issue for McDew than McDew’s experience and the general respect for him inside the Pentagon.

McDew, notably, would be the first African-American chief for the service.

The dark horse candidate for the spot appears to be Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command. Carlisle checks all the boxes — combat command experience, an F-15 piloting background, and time both inside the Pentagon and in the Pacific.

“My priority, the one I think about every single day, is our airmen and their families,” Carlisle told Air Force Times in a recent interview.

However, Carlisle would be 59 by the time Welsh retires, older than normal to take on a chief of staff job. He also does not represent diversity, an issue sources agree is being weighed by both James and the administration.

Most sources who discussed the topic ranked the likely order as Robinson-McDew-Carlisle, although one source was adamant that Robinson will not be the pick.

Other names mentioned as possibilities were Gen. Robin Rand, the recently appointed head of Global Strike Command; Gen. Phillip Breedlove, supreme allied commander of NATO; and Gen. John Hyten, who leads US Air Force Space Command. However, all three were seen as long shots for the job.