ORLANDO – After her second month in office, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James laid out her top three priorities as part of a “state of the Air Force” address, during the final day of the 30th annual Air Force Association Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition Feb. 21.
James laid out the path she, and other senior leaders, feel the Air Force needs to pursue, both in the short term, as well as the years ahead, basing her priorities upon an Air Force that faces dwindling budgets, resources and people.
She feels the Air Force’s No. 1 priority, above aircraft, weapons or equipment, is its people. “Having the right people in the right job at the right time, who are trained and developed should be our number one priority.”
The Secretary added that, “taking care of people means to me recruiting, retaining and reshaping our force, so that we have the right people in the right jobs for the immediate future, as well as thinking ahead to the longer term. We are going to be smaller. We will be going through a force-shaping set of procedures, which will include mostly voluntary measures. We may do some involuntary as well, but this will be a big deal over the next year or two.”
James said the other part of taking care of people is compensating people fairly. She believes compensation has escalated over the last dozen years or so, but she expects to see a leveling off in the years ahead. She also believes that to grow Airmen, the Air Force needs to be more diverse.
“Taking care of people also means growing our leadership, developing our people, and getting more diversity of thought at the table. That includes people who come from diverse backgrounds. People with diverse backgrounds have different approaches to problems, and I’m convinced we will get better solutions if we have that diversity of thought.”
James also stressed that family programs, along with a good balance of work and family time are key to growing better and more productive Airmen.
“It means protecting family programs, achieving a work-life balance, which is hard for a lot of people in the Air Force, because there is a lot of work and it’s hard to get that work-life balance in there. It means leveraging the best talents of our active, Guard, Reserve and civilian teams. We also need to ensure a climate of dignity and respect for all, all of the time, period, whether you are on duty or off duty.”
While most of what she sees in the Air Force is extremely positive, James said there are important Airman issues that need to be improved. In the past two months, she has traveled to eight states, as well as the District of Columbia, and has put time and effort into addressing some of those issues
“One of the things I’m tracking on is sexual assault and sexual harassment. I’m listening and watching to see what changes have been made over the last year or two, and I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. I get that our top leaders, without question, get the importance of it; they’re on it, we’re working it and that’s the way it needs to remain – persistent focus will create an atmosphere throughout the Air Force that that behavior won’t exist.”
The second Airman issue involved 92 missile crewmembers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont, who had some level of involvement in the cheating incident involving a monthly proficiency test on nuclear weapons.
“Some of these officers were directly involved with the cheating, others knew something about it, but for whatever reason, they failed to stop it and they failed to report it. I went out to the missile fields because I wanted to talk to some of the people involved and learn more about it.”
James traveled to the missile bases, along with the Global Strike Command headquarters, and came away with a sense that the Air Force nuclear mission is in good hands, after receiving command briefs, tours, and more importantly talking to Airmen.
“I am convinced after all of this that, number one, our nuclear mission is safe and secure. One test does not make or break anything, and there are plenty of outside evaluations and inspections which demonstrate to me that these Airmen know their job, they are performing it well, so our nuclear mission is safe and secure”
James’ No. 2 priority is balancing today’s readiness with tomorrow’s modernization. “When it comes to today’s readiness, I have the utmost confidence in our Air Force. If they are called upon tonight to do a mission half way across the globe, they will step up and do a magnificent job.
“With that said, I wouldn’t be truthful with you if I didn’t tell you readiness has slipped in recent years. Last year, during sequestration, was a particularly difficult time. We had to stand down some of our flying squadrons. So readiness has slipped. And we need to reverse this. The Chief is committed, I’m committed, we are all committed to returning the Air Force to higher levels of readiness than we have today. We owe it to our Airmen, we owe it to our country and that’s what we’re going to do.”
James said that with the immediate relief the Air Force has been provided in fiscal years 14 and 15, “we’re going to take most of that and we’re going to beef up our readiness. It doesn’t mean it will be perfect, it doesn’t mean that will fix it, it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t like to do more – but it will be a top priority moving forward.
“That’s today’s readiness. Then there’s tomorrow’s readiness, which is my way of talking about modernization and the need to recapitalize our platforms to ensure we stay ahead of the threats, and be able to control the skies, project power and extend global reach for the years to come.”
The Secretary said the top three priorities for modernization remain the newest fifth generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II, the new KC-46 tanker, recently named the Pegasus, and the Long Range Strike Bomber.
James third priority is to make every dollar count, and said added value to the taxpayer is important in everything we do. “We need to make sure our programs are on budget and on schedule. We need to be able to deliver auditable books of how we allocate and spend our money.”
She said the details on how she plans to advance these priorities will be revealed as early as next month.
“The details on how we’ll do all that will be rolled out in March in the 2015 budget. Shortly thereafter, General Welsh and I will go to Capitol Hill and we’ll start the posture hearings, talk to Congress and explain our point of view.”
She mentioned that like all give and take, there may be things we don’t like, with hard choices that have to be made, citing possible retirements of complete fleets of aircraft among others. “I mentioned force shaping measures, there will be headquarters reductions, there will be a number of areas where we will be reducing. I’m telling you this now to get you prepared and ask for your help in telling the total story on how we can achieve these savings, sometimes in very unpopular ways. So we can take some of those savings and reinvest them in some of the key areas –people, readiness and modernization.”
While there will be tough decisions to be made in the months and years ahead, James looks at the Air Force in a positive light. ‘Our future is very, very bright…whether we’re flying an aircraft to project visible airpower capability, or launching a satellite from Florida to provide GPS for the nation, or whether we’re guarding a missile silo in the Great North, or refueling an airlifter over the Pacific, or providing close air support in Afghanistan, our security depends on these amazing Airmen.
“And, the more time I spend with them, the more I see them carry out these indispensable missions, the more proud of them I am, and of their families. From the sacrifices they endure, sometimes in remote locations around the world, our Airmen are very dedicated professionals, they are steadfast to their commitment to America, and they are living our legacy every day.”