Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James came into the Pentagon three years ago as a businesswoman with years of experience, but she was also once an aspiring diplomat.
The service’s top civilian seat sat vacant for months, filled in the interim by acting undersecretary Eric Fanning, who’s now about to step down as Army secretary. When James finally filled the post, she became just the second woman in history to serve as Air Force secretary. She soon found herself in regular meetings with then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and later his successor Ash Carter.
A former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee who went on to hold senior jobs at the Defense Department during the Clinton administration before taking executive jobs at defense contractors including SAIC and United Technologies Corp., James had roughly 30 years of political, management and national security experience on her resume before serving as Air Force secretary.
James, who was clearing off her walls and stowing personal memorabilia into boxes on Tuesday, will officially depart the Pentagon this week. She said she will make herself “available” in an on-call position should President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team need guidance, but plans nothing permanent.
To civilian audiences unfamiliar with her job, she once said to think of her as the “CEO of the U.S. Air Force.” And as with running any company, she faced both positive and negative challenges — tasks James says she hopes she handled to the best of her ability and with due diligence.
“I hope I’ll be remembered first and foremost for the people [initiative],” James said in an interview with Military.com. She repeatedly has said her priorities for the service to succeed are people, readiness, modernization and making every dollar count.
“All these modernization things are also important, but I hope I’ll be remembered [for] stopping the downsizing and starting us on a path of growth again,” she said, with special emphasis on expanding the service’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and remotely piloted aircraft pilot ranks.
Her list of accomplishments includes “expanding opportunities for women, advocating for a more diverse and inclusive Air Force” from a family focus — “everything from maternity leave, spouse employment, the [exceptional family member special needs] program — to the quality of service, [removing] additional duties for airmen, and the focus on sexual assault.”
“All of these things go to quality of life, quality of service, so I would hope those would be the top elements of my legacy,” she said.
In the interview, James warned the service must continue to focus on countering a rising number of global threats. She talked at length about a number of other topics, from surprises and disappointments in her Air Force career to women in combat to personnel changes and weapons systems. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What’s been the most surprising and disappointing element of this job?
A: Surprises? It shouldn’t have surprised me but I was surprised just how divisive it is on Capitol Hill. How difficult it could be to get point across — budget I think has driven some of that. But it’s also just divisions between the House [of Representatives] and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, the White House … and there’s just all of these divisions, which of course we get caught up in. A regret, if I could go back and do something better, or … differently, I wish I could have done more to speed up the acquisition process because despite [programs] that have been started and requests for proposal, they take still, in my opinion, too long. And I promise you, I’ve been beating the drum and beating the drum and beating the drum, but it’s still not to my liking.
Q: Do you think there’s a threat to women in combat, and the Air Force’s work for integration, with the incoming administration?
A: No. I was very encouraged with what Gen. [James] Mattis said in his confirmation hearing, and after all, he said what we’ve always said: The standard is the standard. If people can meet the standard, then they ought to have the opportunity to compete. We’ll probably have small numbers [of women in combat positions] … across the military services, but if the standard can be met, we will all be stronger for having the best people in these jobs.
Q: You came into this position when the Air Force was drawing down its forces significantly — some of the smallest numbers since the service’s inception — to ramping up the ranks shortly thereafter. What’s the big takeaway there, and looking ahead?
A: My takeaway: Don’t take at face value alone PowerPoint presentations that you get in Washington. Take that as a datapoint, but then bounce it off what you see actually happening on the flightline, in the field. Because for me, when I was brand new and got briefed on the budget as it had already been baked, it all made pretty good sense. … Given it was predicted the world conditions were going to go, and given the number of squadrons, and so on, that we said we needed. Then … going out from base to base, it already seemed we were undermanned. Everywhere. So for me, that was the gradual process. It took months to finally gel in my mind that we had already gone too far [cutting the force]. The [latest drawdown] was a substantial downsize. The first year [I was on the job], we had gone through voluntary and one round of involuntary downsizing [in 2014]. After that, we kind of collectively said, no … enough is enough. That next year onward, it’s been growth.
Q: Modernizing and tending to the nuclear career field airmen was something you felt really needed nurturing, especially given the corruption and scandals that plagued their ranks before your tenure. What was your goal for this career field?
A: The immediate goal … was to make sure that no matter what the circumstances, that there was safety and security within the nuclear forces in the United States. After convincing myself that the safety and security of the weapons was without question, the next thing was to go public: Tell the Congress, tell the press, the American people, including our own airmen — we’ve got a problem here. Third element was let’s go out and figure out what we’re going to do about this. What became pretty apparent was that it was more than just cheating [on exams]. It was systemic. It had people aspects, readiness aspects, we needed to modernize … and a lot of those things have now been put in place, and I’m pretty comfortable we’re on a good path forward. I hope that my successor will take a special interest in this as well, because this is an area, which in the past there have been scandals, and I think people rushed to the scandal. Then changes are made and then [the scandals] go away, and they perhaps don’t follow up and check repeatedly. And somehow things seem to slip backward. It’s important we not let that happen. And it’s why I made such a point of going back myself to these bases. Once again, I can get any presentation I ask for here in Washington … but it’s really important to … double check yourself by looking in the field.
Q: What does that mean for nuclear airmen as the U.S. aims to update its nuclear weapons stock?
A: We’re on a path to do that . … I think Sen. [John] McCain [R-Arizona] is rolling out a new proposal — he’s got the modernization of the nuclear enterprise in there — so I think the momentum is there to keep moving forward, and I think that’s very important.
Q: Are you concerned for other strained career fields, or believe other fields could whittle away as time goes on?
A: The ones that sometimes backtrack are the areas that don’t get a lot of focus just naturally. What does get a lot of focus in the Air Force is the fighter [pilot] community, the combat air forces — that tends to be where we focus an awful lot of our time and attention. That’s where the biggest modernization program of all — the F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] — is. We still need to focus on that, but I’m not so worried we will slip on the focus there. It’s the other side of the spectrum, and nuclear [forces] fit on that other side of the spectrum.
Q: Where do “up-and-coming” jobs such as cyber, space and ISR fit on that spectrum?
A: They’re very much on the upswing. But in cyber, the world changes annually. You’ve got to keep up to speed with the newest technologies, threats, so that requires continual focus. You might slip backward because the world might advance and leave you behind because it’s constantly changing. I would say the same thing in the space arena. There, we are focused very heavily on a number of things, but most importantly is changing tactics, techniques, procedures to wrap our heads around [the idea] space could end up being a warfighting domain — where a conflict on Earth extends into space. And we better be ready for that, we better understand how we would operate and how we would defend our assets … whether it’s mobility, cyber, fighter pilot, or RPA, all of them ought to have familiarity with what space provides to the enterprise. We need to continue to raise the visibility of space, and raise the funding.
Q: Any concerns for the Air Force partnering on future space programs — for example, with SpaceX, which had the mishap in September?
A: We have an excellent relationship with SpaceX, and that was not the case earlier on. … The teams have been working very, very well together, and of course we had a lawsuit early on [in 2014], which eventually got settled, and SpaceX has been certified. So we now have a very close, working relationship with them. I don’t have any concerns with partnerships, per se. Partnerships have been very important to us. The one program [still incomplete] for me, is OCX [ground control station for the GPS-III satellites], which is still not out of the woods. It’s better than it was … but that’s another one where the focus needs to stay strong.
Q: The Air Force has put forth a lot of recent initiatives — aviator bonus hike, transgender airmen integration, relaxation in tattoos and medical waivers. Do you think it’s going to be enough to retain and recruit airmen?
A: This is the kind of thing that needs to be monitored year after year. We are still, despite all of our challenges, the highest retention service … than the Army has, than the Navy has, and that’s good, because we are a high-tech Air Force. We want a higher skill level. We need to keep those higher ranks. I would say in the next few years, we really have to focus on maintaining our maintainers — we have a shortage overall — and many of the maintainers we do have are younger airmen who aren’t seasoned. So it’s crucial as those [airmen] become seasoned, that we hold onto them. … Sometimes it’s a monetary technique, a re-enlistment bonus, but then it’s the quality of service, the quality of life. … The better the experience, the more we’ll retain.
Q: The Air Force recently released requests for proposals for big programs such as JSTARS, T-X trainers, and in your time, awarded contracts for programs such as the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber. With an aging fleet, what program needs the most attention?
A: Over the last few years, we’ve reached [initial operating capability] for the F-35 …and pilots will sell that program. To a man and to a woman, they say [the stealth jet] is a cut above. So we have to continue to drive the price down, the price for the taxpayer, and all of that is in motion. The KC-46 [refueling tanker] is a little bit farther off, but it’s really just around the corner and that too is coming. B-21 was launched over the last year and a half, and is making steady progress, still in early stages of development. The new combat rescue helicopter [HH-60W], that was launched maybe two or three months of me coming on board, and that’s going to be a much needed upgrade and modernization for our pararescuemen and helicopter fleet. Then, the nuclear [modernization], the GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missile), and LRSO (long range standoff cruise missile). The draft for the UH-1N [Huey] helicopters, the [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System], T-X — hopefully EC-130 can get going once we get past the [continuing resolution] — so a lot of irons in the fire all at once. But they are all needed. Which comes back to, we’ve got to stop talking and start doing when it comes to lifting sequestration, making sure there’s enough topline, modernizing both conventional and nuclear, which is unusual at a point in time to be doing both … but we have to do both. But we can’t lose sight on our people and readiness issues either. The reason why we got ourselves into increasing levels of downsizing of people over the course of 20 years is because even when the money was more plentiful, we had burgeoning modernization costs, and we had to pay for it somehow. … We can’t do that again.
Q: From a rapid-deployment, operations and training standpoint, how do you perceive global threats as you leave this position?
A: Russia, China, we have to conclude this military fight against [the Islamic State]. Even when we do, it won’t be over over because there need to be political solutions. Ideology has to be dealt with. [The Air Force’s] piece is military, so that needs to be wrapped up. We need to keep our eye on North Korea. Iran. The “four-plus-one” threat, as you’ve heard it referred to, is going to remain top of mind, for the next team as well.
Q: We’ve devoted 15 years to Afghanistan. Some members of Congress and the American public feel like it’s a lost cause. From an air campaign standpoint, it’s still very much ongoing. What does that mean for the Air Force?
A: Based on everything I have learned recently about Afghanistan, unlike the fight against [the Islamic State] where there is steady progress, Afghanistan is much more of a standoff. We make gains, the [Taliban or ISIS] makes gains. It goes back and forth. It comes back to the importance of political solutions. Somehow, there is a military solution to [ISIS] to then be followed by political solutions. But when it comes to Afghanistan, my sense is, the political is even more important.