New Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stood in front of a room of airmen in the Pentagon recently and presented an unconventional proposal. What, she asked, if she eliminated every single one of the Air Force’s regulations and required service members to ask for the ones they need back?
Wilson paused for a moment, and dozens of airmen in the room laughed. It was a “bad idea,” she acknowledged, but then she pressed her point. The Air Force has too much bureaucracy, too many regulations and too many people stuck doing busy work, she said, as several senior officers sat listening.
“Now, we all still want to drive on the right side of the street and so on, but some of these things are not only not written in the English language, but if something goes wrong we’re going to say, ‘Oh, you didn’t follow Air Force instruction 210-dash-2.1, subparagraph X, and we’re going to hold you accountable,'” she said, according to a video viewed by The Washington Post. “It’s like, are you kidding me? And you know, there’s a whole bookshelf of these.”
Wilson concluded: “Let’s not try to tell them how to do everything. Let’s tell them what to do, and let them surprise us with their ingenuity.”
Wilson’s approach — folksy at times, but with a background as a Rhodes Scholar — is a shift in a service that has 660,000 airmen and a $132 billion budget, but is struggling to keep up with its demands. While the Trump administration has promised to bolster the military, the Air Force is currently coping with an aging fleet of jets that have been used heavily in the air war against the Islamic State and what senior service officials have called a crisis-level shortage in fighter pilots.
Wilson has said repeatedly that the Air Force is “too small for what the nation expects of it,” advocated adding additional aircraft and people. She also has called for the service to do more to take undue bureaucratic and training requirements off airmen, something that critics say has driven many Air Force pilots out of the military and into a more financially lucrative career in commercial aviation.
When Wilson touches on those points, she is fond of mentioning the service of her Scottish grandfather, George “Scotty” Wilson, who flew planes for the British Royal Flying Corps in World War I and the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He and his wife, Annie, played an integral role in her life, especially after a car accident changed her family forever.
“My father was actually killed when I was 6 years old, and my mother remarried to someone who had his own set of problems with alcoholism,” Wilson said in an interview. “I didn’t much like that, and so at 17 years old, I left. My life arched towards my father’s family, and my grandparents were still alive and very much involved in my life.”
Wilson, a native of Keene, N.H., was recruited for the job by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a science and engineering university where she served as president since 2013. She and Mattis did not know each other well, but she appealed to him because her experience was wide-ranging and included time as a congresswoman in New Mexico, he said.
“Heather Wilson is a leader for all seasons,” Mattis said in a statement. “She distinguished herself as an active-duty Air Force officer and as the president of a university. Her experience in Congress and the private sector made her the ideal choice to lead the Air Force.”
Wilson, 56, could have gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she said. But after spending her childhood hearing aviation stories from both her grandfather and father, a commercial pilot and former airman who flew out of Boston, she sought her grandfather’s blessing to join one of the first Air Force Academy classes to allow women.
Wilson graduated in 1982 from the Air Force Academy’s mountainside campus in Colorado Springs, where she was classmates with Gen. David L. Goldfein, now the Air Force’s top officer. She was faced with a dilemma there: She had secured a slot in flight school, but was surprised to learn she also had been accepted as a Rhodes Scholar. She strongly debated declining the scholarship before others convinced her that it would open new doors in her life, she said.
Wilson considered pursuing a career as a pilot again after earning a doctoral degree at Oxford University but said she decided against it in part because of a prohibition on women flying combat aircraft that did not fall until 1993. Instead, she worked as a planning officer at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in Great Britain.
“At that time, women were still not allowed to fly combat aircraft, and when I closed my eyes and I saw myself flying something, it was something small and fast, you know?” she said. “So I decided to use this education to do something different.”
Wilson, speaking aboard a military aircraft on June 26 as she returned to Washington from a day on Colorado military installations with Vice President Pence, said that Mattis first approached her about the job with a phone call before the Jan. 20 inauguration. She had misgivings about leaving “the best job in the world” as a university president and about moving back to the East Coast following many years in the Midwest, but Mattis persisted with several more calls, she said.
“He told me, ‘You’re my first choice, and there’s big gap between you and my second choice. And I’m not going to talk to anyone else until you tell me whether you will do this if asked,’” she said. “It’s one of those moments where you know your draft number has come up, and you’re supposed to serve.”
Asked if she had any concerns about joining the Trump administration given some of the president’s controversial statements and actions, she deflected.
“To me, I work for General Mattis and the United States Air Force, and I am here to serve the Air Force and organize, train and equip the Air Force and make sure it sustains combat operations in air and space,” she said. “My role is to focus on securing that, and that’s what General Mattis has asked me to do. That’s a mission that I can and am happy to do.”
Wilson acknowledged that the confirmation process was difficult at times and believes that it can “discourage good people from wanting to serve.” In her case, her ethics were questioned regarding work she did for Sandia Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin that specializes in nuclear weapons, beginning days after her term as a congresswoman ended in 2009. The Energy Department Inspector General found that the deal was “irregular,” but that she did not break any laws. She ultimately was confirmed by the Senate with a 76 to 22 vote.
“There were some where it just felt like they had a role to play,” Wilson said of the senators involved, without naming any. “It wasn’t particularly pleasant.”
The most vigorous questioning came from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He pressed Wilson on why she billed the government for “consulting services,” but did not provide specifics for what that included. He asked if she would hold other contractors to a higher standard, and she responded that “the United States deserved my best work, and that’s what they got.”
A spokesperson for Blumenthal, Maria McElwain, said that questioning nominees is a role committee members are required to play.” Blumenthal “gave Dr. Wilson numerous opportunities during the committee’s confirmation process to explain her inadequate documentation of services billed as a federal contractor,” McElwain said.
“Not only did she fail to explain her own conduct, she continued to defend it and would not pledge to hold Air Force contractors to a higher standard,” McElwain said.
Wilson said she was pleasantly surprised by interactions with some lawmakers, including Democrats. She cited Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a frequent Trump opponent and target and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as one example. Wilson “was not looking forward” to meeting her initially because they are so different politically, she said, but came away from their encounter feeling good about it.
“Really interesting, and I think it was in part because she was a university professor. We connected on that,” Wilson said. “Of all the folks that I met, she was the one where if I had to list the top four that I wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee, she’s on the list.”
A spokesperson for Warren, Lacey J. Rose, said that Warren also appreciated the meeting and “despite disagreeing on some issues,” found common ground with Wilson on the importance of research in the Defense Department’s future. Warren looks forward to hosting Wilson at laboratories in Massachusetts in the future.
Related on Checkpoint: