MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Alabama – On her last day in office, outgoing Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James urged the incoming Trump administration to remember the United States' military allies and partners.
"NATO is very, very important," James said. "Partnerships [with international coalitions] are crucial, and that goes for industry partnerships as well."
In an interview with reporters during a flight back to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, James' comments on partnerships and alliances were brief. But they touched on the soon-to-be-inaugurated 45th president's controversial skepticism regarding NATO, which has unnerved longtime allies and which is not shared by some of Donald Trump's cabinet members, including his pick for defense secretary, James Mattis.
Trump has also taken swipes at major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing on his Twitter account.
James said Trump's focus on finding new ways for the government to operate more efficiently is good, but also cautioned that there is no "low-hanging fruit" — simple ways to cut spending.
"It's not easy," James said. "To make major savings at this point will take major consolidations, it will take a BRAC [base realignment and closure commission], which we've pushed and haven't been able to get through Congress. Efficiencies are good, but they're going to have to put in a lot of time and effort if they're going to get big savings going forward."
James also urged the Trump administration to permanently lift the threat of sequestration's budget cuts, and quickly, she hoped within the first 90 to 100 days after inauguration.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter participates in a farewell ceremony for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James Jan. 11 at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Carter and James will both leave their jobs on Jan. 20 with the outgoing Obama administration.
Photo Credit: Air Force
Helping ensure an orderly transition for the Air Force under the incoming Trump administration has been foremost on James' mind in recent weeks, she said. This has included making sure the appropriate materials are provided to the new administration's transition team at the Pentagon and setting up briefings. James said she has taken part in some briefings, and others were handled by uniformed officials. Some briefings have delved deeply into the details of various topics, she said.
James said she is glad that, during her tenure, the downsizing of the Air Force finally stopped and manning began to grow again. The downsizing was going on well before she became Air Force secretary in December 2013, she said. But midway through 2014 – when a force management program that cut nearly 20,000 airmen in a single year was well under way – James said she began to realize that the planned cuts were going too far, and hurting an already undermanned force.
James also said unforeseen geopolitical developments like Russia’s emboldened aggression and invasion of Crimea and the rise of the Islamic State meant more airmen were going to be needed.
"This period of calm overseas that we thought we would encounter simply didn't pan out," James said. "By the summertime of 2014, it no longer made sense to downsize more."
The Air Force originally planned to spread out its planned downsizing of roughly 25,000 airmen over five years, but early in 2014 it emerged that the bulk of those cuts would happen in the first year. When asked if – because conditions in the Air Force and around the world changed that year – she regretted cutting so many in 2014, James said the cuts were part of the president's budget, and she came in too late to do much to change it.
But she said the cuts "made good sense on paper" at the time. And the former SAIC executive said her time in the private sector taught her that, when massive downsizing is on the horizon, it's better to "rip the band-aid off" and get it over with as soon as possible, so people don't have to worry year after year.
James said the number one recommendation she and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein made to the Trump transition team has been to continue growing Air Force manning. She said Goldfein's goal of reaching 350,000 airmen over the next five to seven years – up from the 317,000 the Air Force had at the end of fiscal 2016 – seems about right.
The Air Force is short in maintenance, nuclear, remotely piloted aircraft, and cyber airmen, as well as fighter pilots, as well as associated support for those career fields, James said. These manning increases need to be spread out over several years to avoid overwhelming the service's training capacity, she said.
James said she regrets she wasn't able to do more to speed up the service's acquisition process. The Bending the Cost Curve initiative, part of the Air Force's Making Every Dollar Count program, tried different ways to speed it up or reduce costs or bring in innovative approaches, she said. There were some successes, she said, but not enough.
"It would have been wonderful to do more, because I think we are still too slow," James said. "We are too slow in getting [requests for proposals] out the front door, and I would like to have done better."
Five or ten years from now, James said, she expects the Air Force will be bigger and have even more integration of its active, Guard and Reserve components. The increase in manning, coupled with modernization efforts – the service has taken major strides in recent years toward fielding the F-35, KC-46 and B-21, among other aircraft – will also help improve readiness levels, she said.
James also predicted the Air Force will be more diverse, with greater representation of women and minorities in its senior positions. James also expects more non-pilots will fill senior roles in the Air Force in years to come.
"Diversity is not just gender, and it's not just race, it's diversity of thought and background," James said.
James made improving diversity a major goal of her tenure as Air Force secretary, and introduced a series of 22 initiatives over the last two years that she hoped would help.
She thinks many of those initiatives and the overall drive to improve diversity will continue into the next administration, because Goldfein is also a strong backer of the program. She acknowledged that some of those initiatives may not pan out and could be abandoned, but hopes that new ideas will take their place.
James said she's not sure what her next major move will be. After some time unwinding, she will work on a few special projects for the Defense Department over the next few months. After that, however, she doesn't have any plans. She might return to private industry, she said, or she could start a nonprofit with her personal funds, which could focus on mentoring women and girls.