WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday approved Barbara Barrett, a former ambassador to Finland, to become the next secretary of the U.S. Air Force after a 85-7 vote.
Barrett will serve as the Air Force’s 25th secretary, becoming the fourth woman to hold that role.
“I can think of no position that offers more excitement, challenge and meaning than the secretary of the Air Force,” Barrett said after the vote, according to an Air Force news release. “Our Air Force is the best in the world because of extraordinary airmen and civilians with whom I am now proud to serve.”
Barrett is a former chairwoman of the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, which conducts space research and development activities and certifies rockets for launch. Previously, she served on the boards of Raytheon, Piper Aircraft and the nonprofit Space Foundation.
She is also an instrument-rated pilot and was the first civilian woman to land in an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier. In 2009, she trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, as well as in Kazakhstan, and was then certified for space travel.
Her experience in the space sector may be a benefit if Congress establishes the Space Force as a sixth branch of the military. Although the House and Senate Armed Services committees have not finalized the leadership structure of such a service, both committees have agreed with the Defense Department’s guidance to house the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force, with the Air Force secretary as its civilian head.
“If confirmed, standing up a Space Force will be a key imperative,” Barrett told senators during her Sept. 12 confirmation hearing. “I think we need a Space Force. In fact, in my opinion, a domain-specific service to organize, train and equip space forces is overdue.”
Throughout the nomination process, Barrett held the strong support of Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a friend and former A-10 Warthog pilot, and her immediate predecessor Heather Wilson, who resigned in May and is now the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. She will replace Matt Donovan, the Air Force undersecretary who was elevated to acting secretary after Wilson’s departure.
Barrett’s confirmation follows a weekslong hold on her nomination by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who sought Barrett’s commitment to end U.S. Air Force personnel staying at properties owned by President Donald Trump, such as the Turnberry resort in Scotland, where C-17 crew stayed in March while en route to Kuwait.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Tina Smith, D-Minn.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., joined Blumenthal in voting against Barrett.
Blumenthal refused to remove the hold on Barrett’s nomination, forcing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to carry out procedural votes on Monday instead of moving directly to a confirmation vote.
“I think there should be a commitment to seek to stop Air Force spending at Trump properties. It’s really pretty simple. I recognize that there might be some practical or legal obstacles, but I want a clear and unequivocal commitment that she will seek to end that spending wherever possible,” Blumenthal told Defense News on Monday.
“[The Air Force] may have answered some of the factual questions, but what I want from [Barrett] and I still do not have it, is a commitment that she will seek to stop the use of Trump properties for Air Force personnel,” he said.
Blumenthal raised his concerns to Barrett during her confirmation hearing, but although she agreed to review Defense Department policies on lodging and accommodations, she stated that the rules should not target specific individuals.
"It seems that we should have generic rules and regulations that look to the best value and best acquisition [practices], and those rules should be enforced equally,” she said at the hearing.
“They should not be specifically to any particular owner,” she added. “If you were a shareholder in a company that owns hotels, should that [also] be excluded from military housing or military involvement?”
In September, Air Force leadership ordered Air Mobility Command to review its guidance on how lodging and accommodations are selected during international travel after a C-17 crew stayed at Turnberry in March. An Air Force spokeswoman confirmed that AMC completed the study and submitted it to headquarters on Oct. 9., where it is currently under review by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and Donovan.
AMC Commander Gen. Maryanne Miller, who spoke to Military.com last week, said the investigation will show Air Force personnel followed current policy. The service evaluated data from 2015 and 2019 and found that 6 percent of aircrews landing at Glasgow Prestwick Airport stayed at the Trump resort — and only when other accommodations were not available.
“Turnberry is not a first option. You end up rolling down [there] as a solution,” Miller said. “There was no violation of anything. … We even looked at the perception side of things, and the crews just did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.