SecAF addresses priorities at Aspen Security Forum

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  • By Amaani Lyle
  • DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James discussed her top national and homeland security issues, as well as current personnel challenges, during a Q-and-A session with Fox News at the sixth annual, three-day Aspen Security Forum in Colorado July 24.

Regarding her perspective of the current top U.S. threats, James said Russia tops the list, followed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaida and general extremism in the Middle East, China, North Korea and Iran.

“We have had budget cuts and we’re the smallest Air Force we’ve ever been,” James said. “Whatever we are called upon to do, we will step up to the plate, we will send our most effective and our best trained personnel and most modern capabilities, and we will get the job done.”

The secretary also noted the significance of cyber threats and space investments not only to the Air Force, but the Defense Department.

James also recounted that while the Air Force once enjoyed decades-long absolute control of the skies, other countries are catching up.

“My job is not to pick a fight with anybody … but my job is to make sure we’re ready,” James said. “We’ve got to have the right people, the right training, the right capabilities today, and … invest in the future.”

According to James, the 1980s and 1990s were the first decades in which the world at large saw the fruits of stealth and precision technology investments, particularly during the Persian Gulf War.

“Ever since that time, countries have been investing, testing … and replicating to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

They’ve also been investing in asymmetric capabilities, James added. “I don’t ever want a fair fight; if I have to fight, I want to be one or two or three steps ahead of the competition.”

Vulnerabilities out there

But the secretary acknowledged she remains concerned about cyber security, and hopes for ongoing collaboration with industry to buffer against attacks.

“We probably have the best protections in the world, but are they good enough? Are the vulnerabilities out there?” James asked. “We are constantly serving (and) looking and when we find issues that concern us, we try to plug the holes.”

Confidence in Iran nuke deal

Regarding the United States’ recent deal with Iran to potentially lift the arms and intercontinental ballistic missiles embargo in 5 to 8 years, James expressed confidence in the arrangement.

“It’s the best deal that we could hope for under these circumstances,” James said. “The totality of the deal takes off the table the various paths that Iran might have to develop this nuclear weapon over the next decade or so.”

Domestic issues

Of domestic nuclear issues, James acknowledged the fallout from the 2011-2013 Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, debacle in which some 100 missile officers cheated on a nuclear proficiency test via cellphone.

“We never found evidence of cheating beyond that one base, but we did find evidence of systemic problems across the board,” James said, adding that the Air Force opted to take a holistic approach in addressing the problem as a “people” rather than “cheating” issue.

James said the service therefore redirected money and manpower to bolster training, incentive and development opportunities for the nuclear force. “I think we’re making good progress … so we just have to keep on it.”

Sexual identity and gender

Following Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent order to implement a six-month study reviewing what he called “outdated” barriers to military service based on sexual identity and gender, James emphasized that her concerns focus primarily on a military member’s job capability and adherence to their service’s core values.

“If you are doing your job capably and if you’re living those core values, then you’re the type of person I want in my Air Force,” James said. “Times have changed.”

Similarly, James said her former membership on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, helped her better examine the issue of gender-neutral opportunities in the military.

“We were tracking on closed specialties and efforts to open up those specialties,” James said, adding that the standards might be of a mental nature, physical nature or both. “We need … gender-neutral standards for all of these jobs in military, because that will tell us whether or not an individual, be it a man or a woman, can do the job.”

Currently, the Air Force offers the greatest number of open jobs with only six or seven positions closed to women, and those positions, James said, are “closely aligned to the special operations world.”

James said the Air Force will open remaining currently closed jobs for women, provided gender-neutral standards are in place, and the service will allow people to compete.

“If there is a request coming up to me for an exemption, the burden of proof would be heavy to demonstrate to me why that should be if we’re talking about gender-neutral standards and simply requiring that all sorts of people be able to meet those standards,” she said.

Each summer, senior government and industry leaders discuss current key security issues in order to foster leadership at a nonpartisan venue. The Aspen Institute has campuses in Aspen, Colorado, the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, offices in New York City as well international partnerships.