The New York Times' headline summed it up: "For New Air Force Secretary, a Baptism by Fire." Early in 2014, I found out that events have a way of affecting best-laid plans. Over the course of my first year on the job, I had to pivot resources and attention due to unexpected challenges at home and abroad.
Nearly three years later, as I reflect back on my time as the senior civilian in the United States Air Force, I'd like to leave something behind for my successor. Humbly, here are some thoughts for the next Air Force secretary to consider.
Outlook 2017: Perspectives from global thought leaders
Dear Sir/Madam: You are about to take the reins of a magnificent group of Americans at the forefront of U.S. national security, flying and fighting to preserve our freedoms around the world. They are as busy as Airmen have been in many decades, and you will take great pride in all they do. I have watched them span the globe to take the fight to ISIS; deter a resurgent Russia; combat Ebola; stand watch over nuclear weapons; bring humanitarian relief to earthquake- and strife-torn nations; provide critical airborne and space-based intelligence to our sister services and the joint team and perform at exceptionally high levels during a time of extreme fiscal challenges in Washington.
Having seen all the good that my service has done for the nation – under the strain of readiness challenges and budget uncertainties – I wanted to share some thoughts that I hope will help you succeed in leading this proud institution. For your consideration:
Beware of the "unknown unknowns." I came into office with these top priorities – taking care of Airmen and their families; balancing today's readiness and tomorrow's modernization and making every dollar count. Although I have remained true to these priorities there were times I had to shift to respond to urgent problems, like addressing critical needs of our nuclear enterprise and stabilizing the RPA force to ensure quality of service. So be prepared to be agile, flexible and transparent with Congress, Airmen and the American people.
Just because you direct it doesn't mean it will get done. You have to be relentless in following through. For example, I tried for some time to tackle the burden of extra administrative duties that made it more difficult for Airmen to accomplish their core missions. It took longer than I would have liked to make a dent, but we did. And we are better for it. You need to keep this up.
Given the Air Force's reliance on technology and innovation, I cannot stress enough the importance of continual, non-stop collaboration with our industry partners. As I noted in a column in Forbes Magazine, it takes an extraordinary commitment to open communication with industry if we are find ways to stem the ever-rising costs of military programs, gain new innovation from nontraditional companies and speed up the acquisition process. But it is doable as our "Bending the Cost Curve" efforts show.
You will inherit some enormous challenges, as will other service secretaries and leaders in Washington. From where I sit, here are the critical ones.
First, continue the fight to eliminate the Budget Control Act and sequestration. Our ability to modernize depends on it.
Second, we must update our nuclear forces and infrastructure. They are a bedrock of the nation's credible deterrence in an increasingly unstable world. In a similar vein, keep the focus on space. The Air Force's capabilities in space enable the entire joint team and provide economic security to our nation. In the years ahead, space will become more contested, more crowded and more significant in both the military and commercial realms.
And finally, I hope that you will continue to advocate for funding our readiness and people accounts. Our ability to plan sensibly is a key to recovering readiness levels that have fallen in part because of the pace of modern warfare, the demand for Air Force and other military assets and the stresses on an Air Force that has been at war for 25 consecutive years. Moreover, facing shortages of pilots and maintainers and the need to grow other key capabilities like ISR, we need to increase our end strength.
In the future, we must be an Air Force that can prevail in "high end" fights; one that optimizes human performance, respects diversity and treats every Airman with dignity and respect. If you get the people part of the equation right, the rest has a way of taking care of itself.
I wish you much success.
Deborah Lee James is the secretary of the US Air Force.