Retired Gen. Lester Lyles received the award for his involvement with the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the Defense Science Board, as well as for his advocacy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics outreach.
Lyles joined the Air Force in 1969 after graduating from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He received his commission through ROTC.
“Serving in some capacity for me was … something I looked forward to,” Lyles said during an address to cadets in the Arnold Hall Theater.
Lyles served in uniform for 351/2 years in positions that included director of tactical systems for Air Force Systems Command at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., and director of medium launch vehicles for the Space Systems Division at Los Angeles AFB, Calif. He retired in 2003 and was named to the Intelligence Advisory Board in 2009.
Lyles said it would be increasingly challenging for the United States to stay ahead of its rivals as society becomes increasingly technological.
“It’s a tremendous challenge because society is so tech-focused and broad when it comes to capability,” he said. “We’re no longer number one when it comes to some areas of technology.”
To continue to compete, the U.S. needs a technologically proficient workforce, Lyles said. That includes not just information technology but also biotechnology, astronomical technology and “math in more ways than you can imagine.”
Lyles started addressing the challenge during his command at AFMC. When he entered the position, pilots received the lion’s share of promotions among line of the Air Force officers. He brought the matter to the attention of then-Air Force Secretary James Roche.
“Roche personally talked to every young engineer in the Air Force,” Lyles said. “He called it re-recruiting.”
The Air Force also revised the Academy’s curriculum to make it more technology-heavy and to give cadets a broader basic understanding of science and mathematics.
“We hope one of the outcomes will be more people invested in a technological workforce,” Lyles said.
But in order to innovate, tomorrow’s leaders will also need the freedom to fail, Lyles said, recalling efforts in 2001 to test-fire a Hellfire missile from an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.
“It would have taken six months and $60 million,” Lyles said. Upon hearing that, Gen. John Jumper, who was Air Force chief of staff at the time, was livid.
“He just wanted to know, can we do it?” Lyles said.
Jumper told Lyles that AFMC was “authorized to fail,” Lyles said. With that, AFMC officials revised the test program, getting it done in about six weeks and spending less than $5 million.
Another issue Lyles took on, as chair of the Congressionally chartered Military Leadership Diversity Commission, was how to improve diversity among the Defense Department’s top ranks.
“Way back in 2009, diversity was not very large on the horizon,” Lyles said. “Now the Air Force has its first female four-star general. The Army’s first female four-star, Gen. Ann Dunwoody, retired about five months ago. The Navy has its first African-American four-star (admiral) running the Pacific Fleet for U.S. Pacific Command.
Increasing diversity within both senior officer and senior enlisted ranks will put the Defense Department “in great stead to have a diverse military organization reflecting the makeup of the civilian population.”
The Thomas D. White Award is presented annually to a U.S. citizen who has contributed significantly to U.S. national defense, according to the award’s fact sheet. A plaque is displayed in Arnold Hall with names of annual winners, who in past years have included Bob Hope, Sen. Barry Goldwater, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Sen. John Glenn.