Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, in office nearly two years, has overseen tough years of sequestration-driven budget cuts, painful drawdowns of airmen and the last of nearly 14 years of constant war — but more challenges are to come.

As the Air Force-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State group enters its second year, the terrorist group remains in control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the Air Force is stretched thin and facing stressful operational tempos. And it's unclear whether Congress will resolve its differences and pass a fiscal 2016 budget — or whether the Air Force will have to fall back on a full-year continuing resolution that would provide $13.4 billion less than the president's proposed budget. That would be even worse than what would happen if sequestration went back into effect, the Air Force says, which would cut its budget request by $3.4 billion.

But at the same time, Air Force morale has been buoyed by an unexpected hero: Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, who was lauded around the world for helping stop an attempted mass shooting on a train headed to Paris last month.

In a Sept. 16 interview with Air Force Times, James said she has three priorities in the coming year:

  • Ease the strain on airmen by restoring funding, recruiting more airmen, and protecting important family programs. Part of that effort, James said, would be to "knock out" a congressional proposal to cut Basic Allowance for Housing benefits for married dual-service couples. "I think that’s wrong, and I’ve been working that very personally and very hard, as has [Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Welsh, on Capitol Hill," she said/
  • Strike the right balance in readiness, training requirements and modernization efforts.
  • "Make every dollar count" by properly safeguarding taxpayer funds.

"If I can advance the ball for all three of those, with people first, then I'll have a good year next year," James said.

Following are edited excerpts of the interview at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference, just outside of Washington D.C.:

Q. One of the big stories at the AFA conference has been Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone. He's been lauded around the world for his bravery and heroism he showed last month. He'll be receiving the Purple Heart as well as the Airman's Medal. And yesterday, it was announced that he's going to be promoted to staff sergeant. Can you talk to us about what you and what you think the Air Force has learned from Airman Stone's example?

A. We are all so very proud of Airman Spencer Stone as well as his friends who — didn't have to — but they took affirmative action on that terrible day three weeks ago when it could have been a bloodbath. But thanks to them, that bloodbath was avoided.

So we're very proud of him and looking forward to giving him these proper honors. The Airman's Medal is the highest award in a non-combat situation that we could possibly award to Airman Stone, so he is the best of the best, exhibiting integrity and service before self and excellence in all that he does.

So he is getting our highest award. And of course the Purple Heart: Because this was a terrorist action and the man who committed this act has been charged by the French authorities in an attempted terrorist action. Under my authority and thanks to an executive order of several years ago, we are able to award him the Purple Heart.

Q. We have already revised the Purple Heart rules to open it up to those injured by terrorist attacks. Should we take a look at the rules for our valor medals, such as Bronze Star and Silver Star?

A. I am certainly open to that. That would require a change in law, of course, because both the Bronze Star and the Silver Star do require — at one level or another — that an individual be in a combat situation in a declared combat zone.

But as you point out, the world has changed. So I would certainly be open to that, but, as I said, it would require a change in law.

Q. Do you plan to ask Congress for such a change?

A. That is being looked at right now within the Department of Defense. We're trying to think that through. But this really is a worldwide threat situation and our Air Force has really been on the front lines, whether you are speaking about the action against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] in the Middle East or reassuring our allies in Europe in the face of resurgent Russia or the actions in the South China Sea and making sure we have freedom of navigation and freedom of the air — or it could be a humanitarian disaster or protecting the homeland here at home through strategic deterrence or other means.

Q. Operational tempos are very high. At the same time, the Air Force is, as you've said many times, smaller than it's been since its beginning in the '40s. What kind of a strain does this place on the Air Force to continue missions against a group like the Islamic State?

A. We are stretched very thin, and as I've traveled around the country and around the world and as I've talked directly to airmen, what I have learned is we are stretched thin but there is enormous passion for the mission.

Of course there are family separations, and that can cause strains on families and on marriages, so for some of these reasons, this is why we have taken such a hard line and why we say we can do no more downsizing in our Air Force.

Matter of fact we need to upsize for the active duty, the [Air] National Guard and the [Air Force] Reserve, modestly, particularly to address some of our shortages within the Air Force. I'm thinking here of maintenance, we have to do certain cyber operations and we do need to address some shortages with our nuclear enterprise. So these are three of the key areas. But if we stop the downsizing and modestly upsize, my hope is that will alleviate some degree, not all, but some degree of the strain.

We also have to continue to invest in our training, and in the development of our airmen, and we also have to modernize. These are all very important and it's not an either-or situation. We really need to do all three of these things.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks at the opening ceremony of the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference on Sept. 14 at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Military Times

Q. You said that the Islamic State fight is going to take years, and you've cited Air Force progress in taking out things like their oil refineries and pushing them back from some portions of their territory. But ISIL has also shown considerable resilience, and there have been some, such as retired Army Gen. John Keane, who have advocated for placing joint terminal attack controllers on the ground to help direct air strikes. Would you support placing JTACs on the ground?

A. Our president, right from the beginning said the strategy and the approach is that we are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL and indeed, this will take years. So we as a military, we as an American population, as members of the coalition, we have to exercise strategic patience.

So our Air Force has really been at the forefront of this initial phase, we're about a year into it now, and we have heavily contributed to the degrade phase of this. So we have attacked them in terms of their command and control centers, we have taken out equipment, we have taken out thousands of fighters, we have disrupted their tactics, techniques and procedures, and we've accomplished all of this [against] a group of people who are literally willing to kill anybody who is not themselves and who wraps themselves around a civilian population, and we've done it with great precision, with very very little collateral damage, so this is remarkable in the history of warfare.

But an Air Force cannot retake territory, and it can't govern territory, and so this is where we need the boots on the ground, we need the Iraqi army, we need the Free Syrians, we need the Peshmerga, who have been a fantastic ally for us to work with, and with their assistance and with a political solution, that is where we get to the defeat phase, which will take time.

I think JTACs can always improve upon an operation. I always look to the commanders on the ground to see whether or not they are recommending it because I can't second-guess, they have a lot more knowledge of what is going on. And certainly the president has said, and the secretary of Defense has said that should such a recommendation come forward, they would consider that.

JTACs already are quite involved — they are serving at the helm, I'll say, of other commanders, they are using our ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets in the air, they're able to watch the action on the ground and they are actually contributing to the fight right now today. So we are already involving our JTACs, and should there be a recommendation for further involvement, I'm certain that our senior leaders would consider that.

Q. So there hasn't been a recommendation for further involvement yet?

A. From what I understand, we are supporting in every way that has been recommended and that has been requested.

Q. Earlier you mentioned the Air Force's need to rebuild its staff. Some Air Force officials have expressed concern that if we do face a full-year continuing resolution, that that could hurt the Air Force's ability to get the 4,000 active-duty airmen that you hope to bring into the Air Force. If we do face a full-year continuing resolution, in a worst case scenario, could the Air Force be facing further cuts to its end strength?

A. I certainly hope not, and I want our airmen to know that I would be at the lead of the pack arguing against further cuts to our people. I couldn't guarantee it. But that would be the last thing that I would wish to look for in terms of additional cuts.

But if we end up with a full-year continuing resolution, that is actually worse than if we had to live with sequestration. Whoever thought it could get worse than sequestration? Well, it could. We'd end up with over $13 billion less for our Air Force under a long-term continuing resolution. We would not be able to increase our end strength, as we so much need to do. No new starts would be permitted, which would impact a variety of programs. We estimate about 50 across our Air Force could not get started on time. There would be other programs where the quantities could not increase as they should like the F-35, like the KC-46, so quantities in some of our modernization programs would be affected.

And I fear we would once again have to dip into our readiness accounts, which we cannot afford to do because we need to get our readiness levels up to a higher standard. So across the board, a long-term continuing resolution would do us a lot of damage, and Gen. Welsh and I and others are working this very hard on Capitol Hill to get that point across. We need a full-up appropriation bill, and we need a full-up authorization bill.

Q. You have asked for 4,000 more airmen. But we hear from airmen who are stretched thin. Is 4,000 enough? Does the Air Force actually need more airmen than that?

A. We're struggling to get our president's budget. So I'm hoping that we're going to get it and we're hanging in there. But if we had more money, I would love to have more airmen, because as I've traveled around, I fear that we have perhaps gone too low. That's why I was a proponent of stopping the downsizing and indeed upsizing modestly across the board to address some of our highest-priority areas.

Q. One of the issues that has been very much on your mind is the issue of sexual assault in the Air Force and trying to stop it. Earlier this week you talked about your concern about retaliation experienced by sexual assault victims in the Air Force. The Air Force has said that its research shows that most of that retaliation is of the social variety, peer-to-peer. Some have talked about the cyberbullying that some experience after reporting sexual assault. What is the Air Force doing to try to stem the tide of peer-to-peer social retaliation?

A. We're trying to train and we're trying to focus more specifically on the retaliation aspect.

There are parts of this war on sexual assault that encourage me. I think we're moving in the right direction. If you look at our overall statistics, the number of reports are going up, which is actually a good statistic because that demonstrates to me our victims are feeling more confident in the system, they're willing to come forward to seek help and make these reports.

The other statistic that's moving in the right direction is the actual number of sexual assaults that occurred year over year — that number is coming down. So, not good enough, we have to keep the focus, but at least those two statistics are moving in the right direction. The other thing that encourages me as I go around the Air Force, everywhere I go I meet privately with our sexual assault response coordinators, and I ask them, privately with the door shut, how's it going at this base, how are we doing, what are we missing, what more can we do?

And they are reporting that the Air Force is approaching this night and day as compared to a few years back. So all that's the good news.

The not-so-good news is we haven't dented the retaliation problem sufficiently yet, and that's why we're doubling down. It comes down, I think, to empathy training ... to pointing out to airmen that these are matters that you should not rush to judgment; you don't have all of the facts, and instead we try to give our airmen some tools, so to speak, some things that they can say and ways they can act which remain equal to both sides of a story — again not rushing to judgment, but showing empathy for a fellow airman who has gone through a traumatic experience. So I think training is the key, and continuing to have leadership attention and focus on this.

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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