Wilson Appears Headed for Confirmation as Air Force Secretary

Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), shown in a 2006 file photo, is President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of the Air Force. Win McNamee/Getty Images
Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), shown in a 2006 file photo, is President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of the Air Force. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Despite facing grilling by Democrats over an ethical dispute, former congresswoman and Air Force Academy graduate Heather Wilson appears on track to be the next Air Force secretary.

Wilson's confirmation -- the first service secretary position to be filled in the Trump administration -- awaits committee approval, then a Senate floor vote.

Her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday was for the most part free of the fireworks that can accompany nominees facing difficult votes ahead.

Wilson said America may take for granted what the Air Force has done during its history of air dominance, but "intrepid airmen" will continue to prepare for whatever challenges the future holds, from boosting readiness and modernization to helping address a chronic pilot shortage.

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Wilson said the service is now 900 fighter pilots short of its goal -- an increase of about 200 from a previous figure cited last summer by top leaders including Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and then-Secretary Deborah Lee James.

Officials last week also disclosed rough estimates of pilot gaps within the total force: at least 800 pilots for the Guard; 300 for the Reserve; and nearly 1,500 for the active-duty component.

While the hearing was mostly bland, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut made a point to register the disapproval of Wilson's work for Sandia Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. that runs Sandia National Laboratories, after she served in Congress.

Wilson, a Republican, served as a representative from New Mexico from 1998 to 2009. She later worked at Sandia and now serves as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

"Were you aware of the need to maintain work product and evidence for your work?" Reed asked, referring to her time at Sandia.

Wilson replied, "I submitted substantial work product and worked directly for the laboratories for no less than 50 hours a month."

Reed was asking Wilson if she had evidence of her work for the government-owned lab, which assembles and constructs parts for nuclear weapons -- hinting she might have received a payout just to lobby for the subsidiary in contract negotiations.

It's illegal for members to work in a lobbying capacity for one year after serving in Congress.

Between 2009 and 2013, Wilson made almost half a million dollars working for Sandia.

The Department of Energy and Justice Department conducted audits on the lab and concluded in 2014 that Sandia "had improperly billed the federal government for its lobbying effort," resulting in Lockheed paying $4.7 million to the government to settle the issue in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported earlier this year.

The audits did not fault Wilson's work, and Lockheed never admitted it used federal funds to lobby on its own behalf.

"I fully complied with the contract, and I did the work," Wilson said.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the committee, asked if dealing with Lockheed would pose a conflict of interest for Wilson. She replied it would not.

Wilson, whose finances were disclosed by the Office of Government Ethics earlier this week, will also need to sell off stock she and her husband hold with 16 Defense Department contractor companies such as IBM Corp., Raytheon Co. and Honeywell International Inc.

Despite the grilling about her work at Sandia, most of the committee's questions covered ongoing service issues such as the UH-1N Huey replacement program, modernization of the nuclear triad, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 refueling tanker delivery schedule.

If confirmed, Wilson would be the third woman to serve in the role after Deborah Lee James, who served under President Barack Obama, and Sheila E. Widnall, who served under President Bill Clinton's administration.

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, part of the third class to include women.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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