ABOARD A C-37 MILITARY AIRCRAFT -- When Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was asked by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step up to the plate and become the 24th secretary for the service, she knew she was in good hands.
Wilson said she regards Mattis as "a pretty amazing leader," one who mentored her and shepherded her through the halls of the Pentagon.
"He was the one who asked me to come. And he's a pretty special guy to work for," she said during an exclusive interview with Military.com on Tuesday.
So when the University of Texas approached Wilson with a job offer around the same time as Mattis' departure-turned-ouster in December, her decision wasn't difficult to make.
"It made it easier for the University of Texas to recruit me, yes," she said. Military.com traveled with the outgoing secretary on one of her last trips to Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, before she departs the Pentagon in the next two weeks to take her new position as president of the University of Texas El Paso.
During her visit to Maxwell, Wilson continued to tout the latest National Defense Strategy -- another doctrine championed by Mattis -- one she says is "meatier than most." She had seen others while working on the White House National Security Council staff as director for defense policy and arms control for President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. She also served as a Republican in Congress from 1998 to 2009, representing New Mexico's 1st Congressional District.
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But the Pentagon cannot stop with the NDS to go beyond 21st-century warfare. While the NDS is a blueprint on how to approach near-peer threats, Wilson said there's a lot of work to do in how the U.S. approaches current or rising conflicts and unconventional means of warfare. And in how it values its allies.
"I think we're not very good about gray-zone conflict," she said when asked what rising threats the Pentagon will need to work on more efficiently.
"Gray zone" conflict is often defined as an actor that wishes to gain advantage without provoking a conventional military response from its opponent. "Influence operations, or operations short of warfare itself, and undermining other governments' confidence in our alliances … conflict below the level of outright hostilities," Wilson explained.
"Information operations is an example to undermine regimes," she said. "Russia and China are better at that than we are because we just don't think that way."
The issue has come up during war games with top leadership, Wilson said.
In the real world, both Russia and China tailor their messaging or create disinformation campaigns to gain influence, which has allowed Russia to annex Crimea, for example, and China to increase its foothold in Venezuela.
"Our adversaries are often better at shaping the perception of what's going on than we are," Wilson said. But there's no magic answer, she added. "It's not an Air Force specialty, but it is something we need to think about because, in some conflicts, if you can create a fait accompli and the perception that you were the aggrieved party in the first place, and you're just writing the situation. The fait accompli can stick. It is the shaping of an information environment prior to conflict where I'm just not as sure we're as good as our adversaries."
Wilson spoke at length about a number of other topics, from what her successor must see through to how the Air Force might need to take greater -- or fewer -- risks. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Since the day Mattis asked you to be Air Force secretary, how has your outlook changed on the Air Force, U.S. national security and overall worldview after sitting in a top Pentagon position?
A: I think I've learned a lot about how the Pentagon operates and sometimes doesn't operate very well. But really, how the budgets are constructed. Even the way in which the Air Force and the other services look at warfighting. Strategies and concepts of operation, and how that flows into decision making about the budget. I also have a tremendous confidence in the leadership of the Air Force. When I was a captain, I saw a lot of general officers and thought, 'Bleh. I don't want to be like that guy.' Obviously, I have a different perspective now. I think that 28 years of continuous combat has weeded out riffraff. This is a pretty amazing group of general officers, leaders and senior NCOs that I think we're blessed to have.
Q: Reflecting on your time as secretary, what do you feel remains unfinished in the service?
A: I always have a long list of to-dos. I think I will die with a list to-dos on the fridge. We need to implement the Science and Technology Strategy. We have a number of things on ... personnel changes … such as officer performance reports that will be coming next year. Of course, we have a plan to implement the Space Force, pending legislation. I've spent a lot more time on budgets, a lot more time on space, than I anticipated coming into this job, but it needed the attention. And a significant shift in space to a contested domain. Those are big things.
Q: What do you believe your successor will need to tackle?
A: One of the lines of effort for the National Defense Strategy [is] deepening partnerships and keeping alliances. Also, getting readiness moving in the right direction. I'm about to sign our sustainment strategy into effect. Cost-effective modernization and getting acquisition reform implemented. The installation strategy. So we've got a lot of things that are either going or are well underway of being implemented. But one area that my successor is going to have to spend more time strategically is, 'Which of the partnerships and alliances do we need to attend to, what are the seeds we need to plant in order to be where [we need to be] 10 years from now?' I think that's going to be an important piece of work.
Q: That is fostering alliances, creating new ones, or all of the above?
A: All of the above. And what does it look like 10 years from now with a robust set of alliances for interoperability, for our allies' capacity to defend themselves, and for their relationships with each other? So that their regions of the world are more secure, more stable because we are facilitating robust alliances.
Q: The Air Force has touted how it's been able to move much faster the last few years in acquisition strategy, technology advancement and certain training it does across the force. Are there areas where the service may be talking about moving more quickly, but programs have yet to catch up?
A: Perhaps you were in the room when I said this [earlier], but I'm the one that's decisive and [Chief of Staff Gen. David] Goldfein sometimes tells me I need to slow down a little bit. And it's not necessarily on innovation, but we're trying to fix a lot problems in the personnel system. We've done a lot of things to try to fix professional military education and high-year tenure, the promotion recommendation form. And all of it has been based on really good analysis. But there's also a culturation tie-in. And particularly in things that make a lot of difference to people's professional lives, like going to more categories for promotion. ... It does matter a lot. I was ready to sign off on [some of these] new directives in the next couple weeks, and [Goldfein] convinced me that [we should] get this out to the force and get their feedback. Let them ask the questions. So that when we do roll it out, more people understand it. And we may modify it a bit based on that feedback. That's an example of maybe we should take more time to make sure that this will work. On [innovation and technology], there are times where an experiment doesn't work, and that's why you call them experiments. We had a program … where we had a company that thought it could really accelerate a technology, and we put it into an 804 [rapid acquisition] program, but we thought there was higher technical risk than the contractor did. We said, 'OK, if you think you can do this we'll … risk share with you.' But it got down to the final negotiations, and the [company] didn't want to risk share, which told us our assessment was probably right. So we backed off. ... And that's good judgment. We should celebrate that with our program managers for saying this is probably not mature. … We're better off acknowledging that now.
Q: Will the American public see a new technological advancement, weapon or aircraft in the next five years -- something we've never heard of before, something you know about but we do not?
Q: Will it be really cool?
A: Yes. Because if that weren't true, you should be really disappointed in us. Because we're in a field where things are rapidly innovating. I remember where I was when I saw the first-ever iPhone. I was standing on the floor of the House of Representatives [in 2007]. That was over a decade ago. We take this for granted. If we weren't moving forward in innovating rapidly, then shame on us; you should be disappointed.
Q: Are Russia and China making these advancements faster than the U.S. is, and how concerning is that?
A: Russia is a declining petropower armed with nuclear weapons and a threat to its neighbors. China is innovating really quickly, and stealing things too. The threat we worry about most long-term is China.
Q: What is the long-term threat to U.S. national security, whether it be a nation or a type of adversarial action or advancement?
A: I think the rapid innovation of China and its determination to, by the middle of this century, have … a military that is reflective of its position [in the world] and whether China is able to develop as an economic national security power while still being a repressive regime internally … [makes] China the most interesting country to be watching for the next decade.
Q: What will you miss most as you vacate this position?
A: I'll miss the airmen, and the opportunity to interact with them. That's probably not an unexpected answer. I enjoy the fellowship. I've done a lot of different executive leadership jobs, and I've worked with a lot of great leaders. I've worked for the first President Bush, I've worked for Gen. [Brent] Scowcroft. I've worked for Bob Gates. Condoleezza Rice was a peer on the National Security Council staff. I've had a lot of great leaders and mentors, and people that I've watched up close as leaders. But I have never had as positive a working relationship as I have with another leader as I have with [Chief of Staff Gen.] Dave Goldfein. He is exceptional. And I will really miss that.