At 67, Air Force in good shape, but faces some uncertainty, James says

The Air Force celebrates its 67th birthday on Thursday and the service is doing just great, according to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

Even though James has been in the job for a little more than eight months, she told Federal Drive with Tom Temin that every day offers some new and exciting challenge. “Some days I’m in Washington, where there are meetings and there are decisions to be made on policy...

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The Air Force celebrates its 67th birthday on Thursday and the service is doing just great, according to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

Even though James has been in the job for a little more than eight months, she told Federal Drive with Tom Temin that every day offers some new and exciting challenge.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James (Air Force photo)
“Some days I’m in Washington, where there are meetings and there are decisions to be made on policy matters, budgetary matters, working with the Congress,” she said. “Other times, I’m out and about and I’m seeing our Air Force in action. And that’s really the favorite part of my job, when I get to meet face-to-face with our airmen and women around the world. If there is one thing above all other things that gives me great optimism about the future of our Air Force, it is the innovation, it’s the hard work, it’s the dedication and motivation of the airmen that I meet.”

While James is enjoying her new role, she did acknowledge the Air Force faces some major concerns as it celebrates its 67th birthday.

“Our Air Force is in good shape, though we are feeling some strains due to the uncertainty of budgets, the uncertainty of the world conditions,” she said. “We’ve been a very, very busy Air Force in the last several years. And our airmen would like some additional certainty, particularly as it comes to downsizing and when will the downsizing be over.”

Air Force leaders decided to start downsizing and reducing the service’s end strength quickly, in order to shrink to the size they think they can afford under anticipated budget cuts.

As recently as Tuesday, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told an audience at the annual Air Force Association Air & Space Conference at National Harbor in Maryland, the service needs to change the way it drafts its acquisition plans and draws up its budgets so that they’re more predictable, more transparent and more realistic about the amount of money Congress is likely to allocate to airpower in the future.

The changes Welsh proposed were part of a 30-year outlook on the weapons systems the service thinks it will need in its portfolio.

One of the other uncertainties the Air Force is facing is readiness. This is an especially timely concern given how the U.S. military’s efforts against the Islamic State group continues to evolve.

“Whenever the Air Force is called upon to conduct any operation around the world, we have a saying, ‘We have to be ready to fight tonight,’ meaning within hours, not days and not weeks,” James said. “And of course, that is the hallmark of our Air Force. … This latest fight against this barbaric group that calls themselves ISIL, who has nothing to offer but death and destruction and evil, it’s something that the President has said that we will over time degrade them and ultimately destroy them.”

According to James, the Air Force has conducted about 80 percent of the air strikes against the Islamic State militants. So far, the Air Force has deployed the units that are the most ready to respond to this operation. However, in time, the service will have to look at the resources it has available to meet its mission needs.

For the past 12 years, the Air Force has been able to draw on the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) funds to help pay for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As those operations wind down, that funding is expected to drop.

The Defense Department requested $59 billion in OCO funds for fiscal year 2015, which is less than the $79 billion DoD requested earlier in the year. In April, the House approved the original $79 billion request as part of the FY2015 Defense Appropriations Bill.

Even if the Air Force receives all of the necessary OCO funding, operations against the Islamic State group could continue into FY2016, when DoD faces the possibility of another round of sequestration that will impact its overall budget.

“Sequestration is a bad deal for the U.S. Air Force,” James said. “It’s a bad deal for the U.S. military, and I would assert it’s a bad deal for the entirety of our government operations. We, at all opportunities, talk to the Congress about the need to lift sequestration, and I think world events are just the most recent example of why lifting sequestration is an imperative that we have to get on with.”

James acknowledged that while Congress has the prerogative to rearrange DoD’s budget requests as it sees fit, she hoped it wouldn’t make those changes to the detriment of readiness.

“Do not pay for other priorities out of readiness, because readiness is extremely important as we are seeing, day-to-day now in the fight against ISIL,” James said.

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