ORLANDO, Fla. -- Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James talked about the importance of a healthy budget, innovation and developing Airmen as key pieces to remaining the world’s greatest air power, during the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition Feb. 13, in Orlando, Florida.
“There is just absolutely no question in my mind we are the best Air Force on the planet precisely because of who we are and what we believe and what we do,” James said. “Today our Air Force is fully engaged in joint operations around the world, and the demand for what we do in the Air Force – the demand for our capabilities – is increasing. In short, everybody wants more Air Force.“
While the demand for Air Force capability is going up, personnel numbers and funding have decreased, forcing the Air Force to operate in a “perfect storm environment,” she explained. “We are the best on the planet, but we are also an Air Force under strain and something’s got to give.”
To weather the storm, the Air Force is taking the strongest stand ever on sequestration, and is asking Congress for an additional $10 billion in funding for fiscal year 2016.
“Our budget proposal actually busts the sequestration caps,” James said. “For the Air Force this represents the difference between an Air Force that our combatant commanders require, and our nation expects, as compared to an Air Force that with $10 billion less, will not be able to meet the National Defense Strategy – period.”
The increase allows support of Air Force top priorities – taking care of people; striking the right balance between the readiness of today and tomorrow’s modernization; and making every dollar count.
“The taxpayer’s dollar is precious, and we can’t afford to waste a single dollar of it,” she said. “We all have a part to play in making every dollar count.”
As people are her number one priority, James said she’s tried to listen hard to what Airmen need. The overwhelming concerns she found through her various base visits is the reduction in force, particularly involuntary separation boards.
“I have met so many outstanding and passionate and dedicated Airmen along the way,” she said. “As far as the downsizing goes, enough is enough. No more. We need to stop this. We may have already gone a bit too far, which is precisely why we are not going to do involuntary boards in 2015.”
In addition to no involuntary separation boards this year, the secretary and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III have called for an upward adjustment to 492,000 active, guard and reserve Airmen.
The proposed budget will allow reserve component pilots to be instructor pilots, provide funding for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response teams, child care facilities, fitness centers, educational benefits, infrastructure projects and a 1.3 percent pay raise for military and civilian Airmen.
“When we take care of Airmen and their families and we focus on resiliency for all, that means our Airmen can focus on getting ready for the many, many missions that we must undertake in our Air Force,” James said. “We need everyone to be focused on that mission.”
Ramping up current readiness and investing in the modernization across all mission areas of the Air Force is another piece of the budget, she explained. This allows the Air Force to rebuild its readiness over time, and procure a more modern and agile future force.
“All in all, there’s a lot of good in this budget, but it’s not perfect,” James said. “We’ve still had to make a lot of tough choices.”
Some of those choices include phasing out old aircraft, slowing the growth of compensation packages and some base closures. The cost savings in some areas will open others to more innovative ways to complete the Air Force mission, well into the future.
“Air Force ingenuity and creativity, in concert of course with our industry partners, can make the impossible, possible,” she said. “Our potential adversaries have been watching us closely over the last 14 years, and they have watched us perform magnificently, but they have been studying us carefully,” she said. “They understand that we possess a technological advantage, and they haven’t been standing still. Gradually, the gap between our capabilities and our nearest competitors is shrinking.”
By opening areas up to competition, especially in the space launch realm, James said she believes the Air Force can find both cost savings and technological advances.
“In my experience, both in government and industry, competition always drives down costs and improves innovation,” she said. “We want both. We want less cost and we want more innovation. We also want a third very important thing – mission assurance.”
Processes are in practice to ensure the Air Force is getting the most bang for its buck in all mission areas, but James said it’s the Airmen who are the key to making the mission a success.
“I’m a true believer ... that our Airmen are what are going to keep our Air Force the best on the planet,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we’re going to have work really, really hard, because the most vital part of our strategic advantage ... the most vital part that no adversary will ever be able to touch – is the pride and the dedication and the passion of our Airmen of today, and we’ve got to make sure that we strengthen that for tomorrow.”