The White House nominated a defense industry leader to become the next secretary of the Air Force.
President Barack Obama has selected Deborah Lee James, president of the technology and engineering sector at Science Applications International Corp. for the top civilian Air Force post. James would replace Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning, a 1986 Centerville High School graduate.
Fanning, 44, temporarily took over the role of acting secretary in June when Michael Donley retired. He will return to the position of undersecretary which he was confirmed to in April.
The next secretary of the Air Force will have to deal with sequestration spending reductions that have led to the furlough of most Air Force civil service workers. According to defense leaders, sequestration has reduced combat readiness and training, and created a depot maintenance backlog. At the same time, the service has confronted an ever-widening sexual assault scandal at its enlisted boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, among related incidents.
The Air Force needs a civilian leader who can work closely with Congress, and James’ background, which includes a decade as a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, should help the Air Force build relationships with congressional leaders, said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal programs at the Dayton Development Coalition.
“She will have a very good sense of how to work with Congress,” Gessel said. “The Air Force has not impressed Congress with its recent decisions. The Air Force has angered Congress.”
Gessel noted, as an example, an Air Force proposal last year to cut forces more heavily in the Air National Guard rather than active-duty units brought a congressional backlash. Lawmakers created a federal commission to recommend a balance between active duty and reserve forces. The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Springfield Air National Guard Base last week as part of a nationwide fact-finding tour. A report is due to the White House and Congress by Feb. 1.
If the Senate confirms the nomination of James, the civilian secretary will confront the “enormous threat” of both a declining budget and budget uncertainty, Gessel said.
“The Air Force can deal with a declining budget,” he said. “What the Air Force simply cannot deal with … is not knowing what the budget will be and when the decisions (on the federal budget) are going to be made. That’s crippling.”
Loren B. Thompson, a Lexington Institute senior defense analyst in Arlington, Va., said the Air Force needs strong leadership at the top. “The Air Force now has a dynamic new chief of staff and I think what industry and the political system would like is if they had a secretary to match,” he said.
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Toni J. Whaley said in an email the military branch was “pleased” with the nomination of James.
“She is an accomplished professional and leader, who, if confirmed, will bring a wealth of experience to the position,” Whaley wrote.
James is a former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs at the Pentagon and a member of the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. She was a former executive vice president and chief operating officer at Business Executives for National Security, and was a vice president at defense contractor United Technologies. James earned a bachelor’s degree at Duke University and a master’s degree at Columbia University.