MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James spoke May 5 here about her first four months in office, the current environment, expectations and how the Air Force core values relate to her own priorities.
As the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, James oversees a $110 billion dollar budget and manages 690,000 total-force Airmen. Since assuming her duties, she has actively testified before congressional defense committees for the fiscal 2015 budget plan, visited 23 state-side bases, as well as the Middle East and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where she gained understanding of the European and Africa commands’ missions.
While at Maxwell AFB, she spoke with permanent-party Airmen and those attending Air University schools, civic leaders attending the annual National Security Forum and the base sexual assault response coordinator.
“The importance of the mission is obvious to this audience,” she said during an all call. “You have in your hands both the future of the officer core as well as the future of the enlisted core, and making sure that as we recruit these great people, we develop them along the way.”
Through many of her base visits, including her visit here, she said she found that Airmen are discovering innovative ways to work in the Air Force’s current constrained environment.
“Our Airmen are doing magnificent work, and they are doing this work in what is sometimes very austere and dangerous conditions, but they are doing a great job,” James said. “I have seen Airmen at all levels who are taking on tough challenges, who are figuring out new ways to do their work. In all the different career fields I’ve been exposed to, I’ve seen people who are very dedicated and passionate about their work.”
James added that while Airmen are working with what they have, the force seems unsettled due to budget uncertainty and force shaping, which she said leadership has admittedly made worse due to poor communication.
She also heard concerns voiced among Airmen about readiness, in regard to both training and equipment needed to do their jobs efficiently.
Her aim is to fix these issues and ease concerns among the force through her three priorities: taking care of people, readiness and improving efficiencies, she said.
Taking care of people
“One thing I’m convinced of in my 30 years of defense experience is that it all comes down to good people,” James said.
The service needs to ensure that the right people are recruited, and they receive the training and development necessary to support the mission, she said. Airmen need to be treated with respect throughout different mission climates and compensated fairly for their efforts.
She said this means the Air Force needs to capitalize on diversity among the force, as it enables different viewpoints for much-needed innovation among the total force — a total force that will be more actively implemented as the Air Force moves forward.
Balancing needs and readiness
“It’s about how to get that balance done correctly, which is very tricky business because it all depends on where you are going to put your resources and your money,” she said. “And we are flattening out when it comes to military spending. Getting this balance right is important business.”
Balance and readiness is achieved by ensuring today’s education and training needs are met, she said. This also means making the right investments for the future, which could be game-changers in the area of warfare.
Making every dollar count
“There is nothing more damaging to our Air Force or to our military than when time and time again we have weapons systems that run over budget and take longer than they should,” she said. “Taxpayers read about this and they lose patience.”
She added that the secretary of defense wants all services to lower headquarters’ spending by 20 percent within five years. James aims to get it done in one year, and by doing so, the Air Force can apply the money saved to other important needs.
James reminded Airmen not to forget about their people and emphasized the Air Force’s core values.
She correlated her advice to the recent situation within the missile officer career field at Malmstrom AFB, Mont.
“The first question I had to get my head around and ask is, ‘Does this mean the people who are in charge of the nuclear forces within the United States aren’t really knowledgeable about their jobs because they had to cheat to get through this proficiency exam?’” she said. “To me, that put into question the entire safety and surety of the nuclear weapons in the United States. The answer to that question is, ‘The nuclear mission is safe and secure.’”
She said there are many checks and balances within the nuclear program, and that officers within the field were retested, ensuring that they did, in fact, know how to handle nuclear weapons and programs.
“While this didn’t make or break anything, this was still a major failure on the integrity of these Airmen,” she said.
Through the investigation, she said the outcome of what was a negative occurrence is turning into a positive one by improvements in training, testing and accountability within the missile community.
“Even out of the bad, it’s important to learn from it and make good,” James said. “One of my lessons learned is that we need to rededicate ourselves periodically, in the Air Force, to our core values.
“Integrity is a personal responsibility, but it is also very much a team sport,” she said. “If you see something wrong in your environment, your integrity requires you to do something about it.”
She related the core values to the issue of sexual assault within the military. When she spoke to Airmen about their experiences with sexual assault, she said she was pleased to hear that the institutional structure properly handled the cases. However, she was disappointed to hear that, while supported by leaders, the victims were ostracized by their peers.
“These are people they thought that, at a minimum, would have reserved judgment, and, at a maximum, would have shown empathy and support, but, in fact, went the other way instead, blaming the victims,” she explained. “Being a good wingman is so important to our culture, but being a good wingman never means standing by and allowing people to do that, so I say to you, please take it personally.”