JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) --
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James visited here Feb. 27 to learn about the base mission and discuss the challenges facing the Air Force.
"This is my introduction to Air Combat Command," she said. "I have seen nothing but enormous energy from the Airmen here as they describe how excited they are to be a part of the mission."
James' visit comes just nine weeks after the Senate confirmed her as the 23rd secretary of the Air Force. Her arrival to the staff put her directly in the middle of the budget, resource and personnel issues, but James reassured Airmen that her top priority is, and will always be, the people of the Air Force.
"Great people will make great organizations," she said. "Without them, you won't get anything done and taking care of people is fundamental to everything we do."
When it comes to managing the total force, the Air Force must continue to recruit the right people, retain the most talented Airmen and develop them into future leaders, she said, highlighting the importance of staying committed to upholding the Air Force core values and underscoring them with a culture of dignity and respect.
In addition to taking care of Airmen, the Air Force must also ensure the readiness needs of today are balanced against the readiness challenges of tomorrow, James said. Immediate training, equipment and resource concerns will be constantly evaluated against future technological investments.
"The Air Force must be ready to go against any enemy who may challenge us," James said. "This is a world we can no longer take for granted. We have to prepare."
To ensure the Air Force's position as the world's dominant airpower, James challenged Airmen to make every dollar count at every level.
"As an Air Force we must constantly add value to the American people," she said. "We are entrusted with a lot of money. We owe it to this country to spend it wisely."
With any budget, a gap always exists when attempting to match strategic goals with available resources, she said. The mismatch presented in the 2015 budget required Air Force leaders to make a series of judgment calls resulting in cuts, reductions and restructuring across the service, said James.
One of the most controversial decisions is to gradually retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II. While it has been a "stalwart airplane" for close air support missions, other airframes can provide that same capability.
"In the beginning, the decision troubled me quite a bit," she said. "However, I learned that while the A-10 is important, 80 percent of our close air support missions are handled by other aircraft."
Additionally, the decision was made to keep the RQ-4 Global Hawk and retire the U-2 Dragon Lady.
"We had to make some hard choices when considering which airframe to cut," James said. "The tipping point was cost. When looking at lifecycle sustainment, the Global Hawk is less costly."
Another decision made to cut costs was to gradually retire the MQ-1 Predator over the next five years, while increasing the combat air patrols of the MQ-9 Reaper. Both are tremendous systems and have done great work over the past 12 years, James said.
James said the refocusing of these resources will also open up opportunities to Airmen currently assigned to the platforms scheduled to be phased out.
"There is always going to be a place for good Airmen in the Air Force," she said. "We need pilots and support staff to take care of these and future airframes," such as the F-35 Lightning II, KC-46 Pegasus and long-range strike bomber.
The Air Force plans to fully fund flying hours for next year to get those numbers back up because sequestration has degraded readiness, James said. Another challenge will be the reduction of up to 25,000 Airmen over the next five years and the force-shaping measures that will follow these manpower cuts.
The secretary also addressed compensation concerns ranging from pay and basic allowance for housing, to commissary benefits.
"The idea is to push these savings back into other investments that will secure our future and modernization efforts," James said. "We have to do this. For a year or two we need to get by with these cuts, while monitoring their impact and ensuring we don't go too far."
James said despite these cuts, she is confident that the Air Force has a secure future and good days ahead.
"The U.S. military joint force cannot get by without what the Air Force brings to the table," the secretary said. "We are integral to every aspect of joint operations thanks to terrific Airmen who continue to do great things."