National Harbor, Md. — The Air Force is planning a second round of initiatives to improve the diversity of the service's ranks, Secretary Deborah Lee James said Monday at the Air Force Association's Air Space Cyber conference.
In March 2015, James announced a sweeping set of nine programs that aimed to improve the opportunities for women and minorities in the Air Force. Those initiatives included waiving height restrictions for pilots, increasing the pool of female officer applicants, allowing airmen to take time off to start a family or go back to school, and extending the post-pregnancy deployment deferment from six months to a full year.
But the Air Force needs to do more to make sure it's attracting the top talent from all communities, James said in her keynote address at the conference here.
"Make no mistake, we are in a battle for talent," James said, as she explained why diversity programs are important. "It's about recruiting and developing and retaining the best among them. It's about the quality of their experience in the Air Force. And for me, at least, it's also been about paying special attention to certain communities that have required some special attention."
James did not say when she and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are likely to announce these new initiatives, but said they are coming soon.
In her keynote address, James also described how her thinking about Air Force staffing levels has evolved and changed over the past three years of her tenure. When she became secretary in December 2013, she said, the fiscal 2015 budget proposal — which called for personnel cuts — was largely finished and ready to go to Congress.
Those staffing cuts — which James cast as the conclusion of a nearly quarter-century drawdown that began after the Soviet Union's collapse — were driven by the expected conclusions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a budget crunch.
"As a new secretary, all of this seemed to make pretty good sense to me — at least it made pretty good sense on paper," James said. "However, as I started to travel, mostly in the spring of 2014 and beyond, I began to see that some of these Powerpoint presentations that we were receiving in Washington, they just didn't seem to be adding up anymore."
In her travels and conversations with rank-and-file airmen, James said it became apparent that the Air Force was short everywhere, and airmen were feeling significant strain.
Those conversations — combined with a changing geopolitical situation caused by Russia's invasion of Crimea, the Islamic State's rise in the Middle East, and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, among other developments — led James to rethink the Air Force's manpower assumptions by the late summer of 2014. At that point, James said, the Air Force began working on getting funding into the fiscal 2016 budget to rebuild the force.
As a result, James said, the Air Force's end strength will rise from about 311,000 to 317,000 by the end of fiscal 2016, and more growth will follow in years to come.