U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said Feb. 14 that visits to the Air Force Academy and to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, have given her faith in the Air Force’s future.
James, the Air Force’s 23rd civilian leader, spent two days here visiting academic and athletic facilities, the Preparatory School and attending briefings on the Center for Character and Leadership Development and the essence of the Academy.
“Our future is bright first and foremost because of our people,” James said. “I have met many of the cadets, I’ve met the permanent staff, I’ve been to the Prep School.
They’re motivated, they talk about leadership and character all the time, and they’re academically strong.”
She said she had a similar impression after visiting the 37th Training Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, a couple of weeks ago, to observe Basic Military Training.
“They’re terrific young people with lots of motivation,” she said. “They’re interested in leadership and character and advancement, and they’re smart.”
The Air Force will need those future leaders’ perspective and insights. Even as it reduces the size of its active-duty corps, it must still carry out its five core missions: air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control.
“Over the next few years, we will become a smaller Air Force,” James said. “However, our charge is to be a highly ready Air Force and a highly capable Air Force so that we can continue to control the skies and focus on those five core missions that are so critical to our national defense.”
The Air Force is looking to eliminate up to 25,000 positions over the next few years, but that’s only part of the total force-shaping process, James said.
“We have certain categories of jobs where we have too many people and other categories of jobs where we have too few for our future needs,” she said. “There will be, in some cases, retraining of people from one specialty into another. There will also be voluntary incentives for certain specialties and certain ranks of Airmen to consider leaving the Air Force.”
The Air Force may implement involuntary force reductions if it can’t meet its end strength through voluntary programs, James said.
However, because the Air Force’s core missions won’t change, it will have to eliminate processes that don’t substantially contribute to that core. Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson has encouraged the Academy’s staff to look to the essence of the Academy as they reexamine their missions. That’s an approach James said can also work for the Air Force as a whole.
“I’ve been very impressed with General Johnson and her overall leadership,” James said. “When I received the briefing on the essence, to me that meant that … she’s doubling down on the things that matter most. Other items that are not within the essence, by definition, matter somewhat less. And I think that is correct. That’s what we in the Air Force have to do as well.
“I see the ongoing need to think smarter, to fundamentally question how and why we do certain things,” James continued. “When we can reengineer a process or stop doing certain administrative tasks, we ought to be open to those new ideas. Just because we’ve done things a certain way for decades does not mean we need to continue doing them.”
Because the Air Force continues to shrink, James said she will continue to pursue another round of base realignments and closures with Congress. The previous BRAC resulted in the Academy’s hospital downsizing to a clinic in 2008.
“The Department of Defense and the president, for the last several years, have asked Congress to approve a new round of base closures,” she said. “It’s a politically sensitive matter, and it’s a hard thing for Congress to do, but it’s up to us to continue to press the case with them, and we will do so.”
For senior leaders to redesign their mission processes, they’ll need to listen to subordinates at every level, James said. She’s done this by convening focus groups at the bases she’s visited. At the Academy, she’s solicited advice directly from cadets.
“This is a way for me as a senior leader to hear directly from those who are on the ground,” she said. “I pick up good information this way, and getting feedback from all different levels is important to me as a leader. It gives me better ideas about positive improvements that can be made.”
Senior leaders also need to empower their Airmen, James said. That means trust but verify – a Russian proverb made popular in the U.S. by former President Ronald Reagan.
“That is to say, we don’t trust blindly, and if people fail us either in terms of integrity or in terms of other failures, then maybe you can’t trust those individuals as much going forward,” said James, who was a professional staff member for the House Armed Services Committee during most of Reagan’s presidency. “But the vast majority of people are working very hard, and they are deserving of our trust and of our empowerment. They frequently can see more than we can see — good approaches on the ground. To be able to take that input from them and be willing to trust and empower, we need to do more of that.”
James has previously cited a lack of empowerment, micromanagement, as one of the factors that led to a climate of undue stress and fear at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.
“I have tried to involve the Air Force Academy, which is our premier institution for producing young officers for the Air Force, in our thinking as we go forward,” James said. “We have 60 days to think this through and produce an action plan … that we owe to the secretary of defense.”
Overall, James said she was impressed by what she had seen in her two-day visit.
“I would love the cadets to know that I’ve been … very impressed with them specifically,” she said. “They are the top reason why I have great confidence in the Air Force, because they’re our future, and our future looks to me to be in very good hands.”