While elements of the Air Force are always prepared to meet the country’s readiness needs, total force readiness has deteriorated, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Defense Writers Group June 18.
Nearing the six-month mark of her term as the Air Force’s top official, James touched on appropriately balancing the readiness of the force as part of her three top priorities.
“The readiness of today … is just absolutely crucial,” she said. It means having the right training and equipment, she said, and it means having people prepared to step up to the plate no matter what.
“Today, if necessary to go do what the nation would call upon us to do, we’re dealing with the situation in Iraq,” she said. “If we had been together a month ago, you might have been very interested in talking about Ukraine. The point is you never know what is going to happen. The point is you’ve got to be ready. Our readiness in the Air Force, as a total force over the years, has atrophied — that is to say the full spectrum of our readiness.”
Parts of our Air Force are enormously ready at all times, James said, and those are the ones that would be put forward first.
“But I’m concerned with our entire readiness,” she added. “We need to get that readiness up.”
James said the readiness of tomorrow means the platforms and technologies of tomorrow. “You know we have our three top acquisitions programs,” she said. “We have other programs as well, and we’ve got to appropriately invest in those so that 10, 20, 30 years from now, we remain the world’s best Air Force.”
Getting that balance correct is important, James said, but it is a difficult business, because it all comes down to money and where it will be spent in a tough budget environment.
“In order to pay for some of these priorities we’re trying to reduce some of our aging aircraft like the A-10 [Thunderbolt attack jet, also called Warthog], for example,” she said. “We don’t know whether Congress will agree to this at the end of the day, but we have to make those tough decisions [and] reduce force structure in some areas in order to pay for this.”
James told the defense writers that the other two priorities she remains focused on are taking care of people and maximizing taxpayer dollars.
“People are the foundation of everything that we do,” she said. “And taking care of people means a lot of things. It’s a big portfolio.” It means recruiting, retaining and developing people, James said, and shaping the force so the right people are in the right jobs going forward.
Part of shaping the force, she said, will come by downsizing through both voluntary and involuntary means.
“This has been quite an issue that we have been dealing with,” James said. “It’s on the minds of a lot of our airmen, and so I’ve been talking about this as I’ve been traveling across the Air Force. The goal is to use voluntary as much as possible [and] to use involuntary when we must to get it over with so that we are appropriately shaped in the next 14 [to] 15 months, and then we’re done and move forward.”
James said appropriately balancing the active duty, Reserve and National Guard components also is part of taking care of people.
“As we’re reshaping and downsizing,” she said, “we want to take advantage of the best capabilities of all three of those components and the fourth component as well: our civilians.”
The secretary also said another part of taking care of people is ensuring their dignity and respect in an appropriate climate in the Air Force. “As you could imagine, sexual assault has been something I’ve been tracking on quite a bit as well over the last six months,” she added. “It’ll continue to be a top priority of mine going forward.”
James said that coming from the business world, her third priority is making every dollar count in a “tough” budget environment. This involves keeping programs on schedule and on budget as much as possible, she said, while attacking headquarters spending and getting to an auditability stage for the Air Force’s books.
“We’re also trying to bubble up ideas from the field through what we’re calling the ‘Make Every Dollar Count’ campaign,” James said.
The secretary stressed that her job is to ensure the Air Force is prepared to answer the nation’s call, today and in the future.
“My overall job … is to train, to equip and to organize the Air Force so that we can help the nation respond to whatever contingency we’re asked to respond to in what is still a very, very dangerous world,” James said. “It’s to prepare the Air Force today for that, as well to make sure that we’re on the path to do that 20 and 30 years from now.”