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Barbara Barrett embraces modernization, ensuring Air Force ‘competitive edge’ in Senate hearing

Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force nominee, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as a part of the confirmation process, Sept. 12, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

Barbara Barrett, secretary of the Air Force nominee, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee as a part of the confirmation process, Sept. 12, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)


Barbara Barrett, nominated to be the next Secretary of the Air Force, told a Senate committee, Sept. 12, that establishing a Space Force as a new and separate branch of the military “would be a key imperative,” ensuring the nation’s defense and maintaining the Air Force’s “competitive edge.”

“The Air Force must not only retain its technical edge over potential adversaries, but we must expand it,” Barrett said during the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing. “If confirmed, I will continue investments in modernization and advanced capabilities to better equip our Airmen to prevail in the high-end fight.”

In a largely routine two-hour, 20-minute hearing that moved her nomination forward to a confirmation vote by the full Senate, Barrett echoed a set of priorities that have been often described by the Air Force’s civilian and military leadership.

She emphasized the need for robust modernization to recover from budget cuts in previous years. She offered unequivocal support for expanding the fleet of F-35 Lightning II aircraft. “The F-35,” she told senators, “is our future and we need it. And we need it sustainably.”

She offered support for an Air Force analysis calling on the service to expand to 386 squadrons from 312. That number is needed, the analysis says to meet all demands and challenges posed in today’s world. That target was unveiled last year after extensive review and is captured in shorthand as “the Air Force we need.”

The blueprint and supporting rationale for the “Air Force we need,” she told senators, “is not destined for the shelf,” adding that an increase in the number of squadrons is essential for meeting all mission demands and threats.

Barrett, a pilot and former ambassador to Finland in the George W. Bush administration, has ties to aviation and aerospace that are long and deep. She appeared at a joint confirmation hearing that also included Ryan D. McCarthy, the nominee to be secretary of the Army.

Barrett agreed that continuing to reconfigure the force to confront, and if necessary defeat, “near peer” adversaries China and Russia must remain a focus. “China and Russia increasingly challenge free and open international order and impose their authoritarian model beyond their borders,” she said in a written response to a question from the committee. The answer was in response to a question asking if she agreed with current National Defense Strategy and a shift that focuses on China and Russia as well as terrorism.

And, at a time when the Air Force and other services are confronting suicides and sexual assaults among other quality of life issues, Barrett pledged to work hard to understand and address those problems as well as the underlying issues that cause them.

“We must support our Airmen by addressing suicides, sexual assault, housing and quality of life matters. Much work has been done to address these serious issues and, if confirmed, I would support and fortify those efforts,” she told senators.

Barrett also embraced existing policies and themes on topics ranging from the need for the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, to combating cyber threats, to the emerging importance of the Arctic and to working with senators to address groundwater contamination from Air Force bases in their states. She agreed that modernizing the U.S.’s aging nuclear capability is “one of our highest priorities.”

She also spoke to the importance of space and the Space Force’s role.

“If confirmed, standing up a Space Force would be a key imperative. I believe we need the Space Force, in fact, in my opinion, a domain-specific service to organize, train and equip space forces is overdue,” she said.

“American national power depends upon space and our potential adversaries know it. We must be prepared to defend critical space assets, increase the resilience of our space enterprise, and be prepared to fight and win should deterrence fail,” she said.

If confirmed as expected, Barrett will be the third consecutive woman to become Air Force secretary. With a long history in aviation, politics and government service, Barrett was a popular selection when President Donald J. Trump recommended her in Ma,y. If confirmed, she would take the seat vacated in May by Heather Wilson.

In addition to her service as ambassador, Barrett was deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and in the Reagan administration, was part of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Born in Pennsylvania, Barrett spent most of her adult life in Arizona, becoming active in Republican politics and running in the Republican primary for governor in 1994.

She is both a lawyer and accomplished pilot. She gained notice as the first civilian woman to land in an F-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier, riding in the back seat. She earned an up-close view of defense policy and Pentagon behavior in her service as a civilian adviser to both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.

Most recently, Barrett stepped down in 2017 as chairwoman of the board for the Aerospace Corporation after four years in the role. Aerospace Corp. is the only federally funded research and development organization focused on space.


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