Air Force Secretary Nominee Walks Into Political Minefield
Former Air Force Secretary Whitten Peters had some unsolicited advice for President Obama’s nominee Deborah Lee James: Make sure you remind airmen why their job is important, learn how to deal with Congress and remember that, in Washington, you get what you negotiate.
Peters led the Air Force during the final two years of the Clinton presidency, when Republicans led Congress. Back then, being in a Democratic administration and having to deal with a GOP congressional majority was not as bruising an experience as it is now, he conceded. “This Congress is hard … it is driven by factions,” he said Sept. 17 at the Air Force Association's annual conference where he participated in a panel of former Air Force secretaries.
“I told Debbie James to deal with Congress as equals, as people who want to do the right thing,” Peters said. “The Air Force leadership has to understand Congress is an important power,” he insisted. “I don't think people understand how important it is to be an advocate for your own budget.”
But having a big budget is not enough if people are not motivated, he added. James should also focus on boosting troop morale, he said. “When I arrived, we were losing senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers]. … Families were unhappy.” The problem is that senior leadership has not always been successful at galvanizing the troops, especially during tough times, Peters said. “You need to tell airman Snuffy why we have an Air Force and why it is important for him to come to work every day.”
Peters praised Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh for stepping up efforts in this area. “The chief does a good job with pictures and videos,” said Peters.
Obama nominated James Aug. 1. She received a relatively warm reception Sept. 19 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. She has worked at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, as well as in the private sector. Peters praised her qualifications but also cautioned that, if and when she is confirmed by the full Senate, she faces an uphill battle that could go on for years. Improving the relationship with Congress has to be high on the agenda, Peters said.
James will have fences to mend over hot-button issues such as the handling of sexual assault cases and the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons. Armed Services members’ questions during her confirmation hearing suggest that James will have to keep fighting the budget battles that started two years ago when Air Force leaders recommended force-structure cuts that angered lawmakers. Former Secretary Michael Donley ran into a buzz saw when the service proposed cuts that hit Air National Guard units and weapon programs in members’ home states.
Congress created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force that isexpected to provide recommendations in February on how to balance resources in a force of 690,000 active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard members.
Among the disgruntled senators is Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chided James’ predecessor Donley and Welsh for “shortsighted” decisions to retire a fleet of cargo aircraft. His home state’s Keesler Air Force Base stands to lose hundreds of jobs.
James said she hopes the commission will help sort things out. “It's painful to me to see some of the friction that has been happening between the air components,” she told Wicker. “There are fences to be mended and we need to do some work here.”
With that said, she added, there is the budget reality. “I'm equally sure that we will have to take reductions. We've talked about this budget situation that we're facing, so it won't be easy.”
Wicker also opposes the termination of the Air Force’s Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aircraft, which is built in Mississippi by Northrop Grumman Corp. Air Force leaders have insisted the aircraft is too expensive and the service cannot afford to buy any more.
“In Mississippi, we not only have the Global Hawk, but we have the Orion unmanned air system,” made by Aurora Flight Sciences, Wicker said. Wicker asked James for a report, due 30 after she is confirmed, detailing the Air Force's “investment strategy to provide unmanned long-endurance airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to our combatant commanders.”
Air Force officials have frequently complained that the service’s strained budget is being unduly burdened by excess facilities it does not need. Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have resisted Defense Department pleas to shut down military bases.
James will have to make a convincing case to turn lawmakers around. The Senate Armed Services’ markup of the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits base closures at least until the Defense Department provides a comprehensive review of overseas military facilities.
“I do agree we need to take a very strong look at the overseas bases, and I believe that that review is ongoing,” James told Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
James noted the Air Force has excess capacity of 20 to 24 percent across its installations worldwide.
Other senators at the hearing made pitches for bringing more Air Force jobs to their home states.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., urged James to consider equipping the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease Air National Guard Base with new KC-46A aerial refueling tankers. “Sen. Shaheen [D-N.H.] and I would love to have you up to New Hampshire to see that unit,” Ayotte said.
James, meanwhile, will have to sell to lawmakers a new batch of budget recommendations that could include retirements of entire fleets, including the KC-10 tanker, the B-1 bomber and the A-10 close-air support aircraft. These cutbacks are part of ongoing deliberations on how the Pentagon would absorb spending reductions of about $50 billion a year under sequestration.
Several lawmakers have said they would block these retirements.
“To the best of my knowledge, there is no decision on divesting A- 10s or anything else for that matter,” James told Ayotte. But she added that Air Force leaders are “looking at options. And everything, including complete divestitures of aircraft fleet … is on the table.”