October 1 marks the deadline for leaders of the Armed Forces to submit their recommendations on whether to open their remaining units that are currently closed to women. A week before the deadline, we sat down with U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to discuss the recommendation her service was planning to make, as well as additional workforce questions and challenges facing the Air Force today—including dealing with budget uncertainty, fielding intense staffing demands for drone pilots and retaining women at the mid-career level.
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What’s the biggest leadership challenge that you’re facing with the Air Force today?
A. The biggest leadership challenge that we’re facing is, in tough budget environments like we have today in Washington, getting the resources that we need in order to accomplish the missions that the president and that the American people expect us to accomplish. And we have to take care of our people. We need the readiness, meaning the equipment and the training, and we need to modernize for tomorrow. And of course we need to do all this very efficiently.
Q. How does budgeting uncertainty affect the decision-making you have in front of you?
A. The budget uncertainty in Washington is a real killer for the Department of Defense. It causes us to have to plan different programs in a variety of ways, because we don’t know how much money we’ll have—and we don’t know when we will know.
In many ways, the budget uncertainty is even worse for the people in the Air Force who are around the country and around the world doing our missions, because they don’t know about their level of pay. And they don’t know about the level of what we call “end strength,” our total number of people.
Q. What recommendation are you making to Defense Secretary Ash Carter about opening up units to women?
A. We have at the present six positions, six career fields, which are closed to women. They all relate to our special operations team. They’re all very physically demanding positions, and they all demand a great deal of mental acuity. So over the last couple of years now we have been looking at putting in place and developing gender neutral, operationally relevant standards. And the idea is once we have in place these standards, we would like to open up these six positions to women.
So what does that mean? “Gender neutral” means the same standard for men and women, and we will not lower standards. The standards for these positions must be high. “Operationally relevant” means that the standards will directly relate to the job at hand. There will not be standards of physical strength in the abstract, rather physical strength that directly relates to the job.
I will be forwarding a recommendation that says we are prepared to open up these positions. We believe we have the correct standards in place.
Q. How has your recommendation, and the idea of opening these remaining units to women, been received throughout the Air Force?
A. As we’ve been proceeding over the last two years and working on this project, I have heard a great deal of enthusiasm. I also have heard, however, some concerns, some pushback.
The pushback that I have heard is in the minority, but it relates to whether the introduction of women into these career fields will hurt the camaraderie, hurt the readiness of the forces. Will women be able to accomplish the mission?
The vast majority of people with whom I have spoken absolutely are in agreement that women have done many jobs through the decades that perhaps we never dreamed possible. Certainly if a woman can do these new jobs, they ought to have the opportunity to compete.
Q. What do you see as the biggest remaining barrier for women in the services?
A. I think there are a number of barriers that we can overcome with time—and to the extent that we can provide some additional flexibility. As a general proposition, we do a pretty good job of bringing young women into the Air Force, both on the officer and the enlisted side. Where we’re not so good is that we are losing twice as many women as men at the mid-career point. We’ve brought in this fantastic talent, and we’ve trained them and given them a certain amount of development, but we’re not holding on to enough of them. Attacking that problem is our top priority.
We have put in place very recently a series of initiatives that are designed to retain more women and to develop them so that they can rise through the leadership ranks. Unlike in the private sector, we cannot hire in a brand new four-star general. It doesn’t work that way. A general has to grow through the ranks and that takes 25, 30 years, so you have to start early and keep at it.
Q. What are some of the key factors right now that are leading to that big retention problem?
A. Women tell me that they are concerned about matters of work-life balance. They are concerned about how they can start families and have a demanding career in the military, which may include deployments overseas and family separations anywhere from six months to a year.
So, first of all, we’re looking at more mentoring programs, with women who have gone through it and managed that sort of work-life balance. We’re also increasingly doing a better job of being able to station a military couple together at the same duty location whenever possible, in order to keep those families together and have less family separations.
Q. The U.S. Air Force is one of the biggest energy consumers in the world. What’s the way forward on that, and do you see it as your leadership responsibility to cut that footprint?
A. You’re right. We do consume a lot of energy, and we spend a lot of money on energy. And of course, I have three top priorities, one of which is—particularly in these tight budgetary times—we have to make every dollar count and we have to make sure that we’re being efficient in all ways.
We have a number of initiatives for how to conserve energy, how to negotiate better electricity deals, how to do some creative things with clean energy. We’re working on our military bases to conserve energy. We’re also looking at alternative means of delivering fuel and the types of energy that are required for our aircraft.
Q. What about all the staffing and workforce challenges you’ve had around drone pilots? There have been concerns about how much these positions are understaffed and overworked. How are you working through that?
A. The field of remotely piloted aircraft or RPA, as we call them, is one of our most important career areas. This capability is something that our combatant commanders all across the globe want more of, and the demand for these services has gone up and up and up. The difficulty has been that our ability to attract, then train, then put more and more pilots toward this career field has not kept up with that increasing demand.
In fact, we’ve had to take instructors out of our schoolhouse in order to put them on operational missions, for example, targeted at the Middle East. But if you take your instructors out of the schoolhouse, you can’t train other people. So we have been unable to catch up with this growing demand signal.
We’ve introduced a number of steps to kick it up a notch, so that we catch up with this very important mission and provide more of these pilots. We’re increasing the financial incentives to keep those pilots with us and not leave our Air Force. We’re going to call more on our National Guard and reserve pilots to help us. We may use some additional contractor support, particularly in the training environment, in the schoolhouse, so that we can train more of these pilots going forward.
I want to say that this is one of the most demanding career fields that we have in our Air Force. These pilots are flying three times the number of hours that those pilots who are operating manned aircraft fly, and it is a stressful situation. So it is very important to me that we increase the number of pilots through these different mechanisms and ease some of the strain on the existing Air Force.
Q. What’s your sense of how morale is within the Air Force right now?
A. I think morale overall is good, but the uncertainty that people feel is a negative aspect—not knowing how much money we’ll have, not knowing when we’ll know, having to plan different ways of doing things and going right down to the wire until some degree of certainty comes to us. We just have to do better in Washington at eliminating some of that uncertainty.
Many Americans don’t realize that today our Air Force is the smallest in terms of numbers that it has been since our inception in the year 1947. And yet our operational missions around the world have gone through the roof. Whether you’re talking about the air war against ISIL in the Middle East or humanitarian assistance in the wake of the Nepal earthquake or Ebola in Africa, the United States Air Force is at the forefront of whatever is going on. We have fewer people and more missions, which means people are deploying more and that becomes a stresser to our force.
Q. You have held leadership roles in both the private and public sector in Washington. What’s one major insight you’ve gained over your career about how Washington works, or doesn’t work?
A. I have learned that the magic, the positive of Washington is when you can blend successfully good policy with good politics. It is disheartening to me to see the politics part of this become so increasingly difficult, as we have seen in recent years. We have repeatedly failed to put together the type of coalition that we need in order to pass good policy measures, which is why we continually lurch toward government shutdowns. Congress doesn’t get their authorization or appropriation bills passed on time, which of course reverberates to those in the military and gives us all this tremendous uncertainty.
Q. Do you feel a real difference today from the Washington you entered two decades ago, three decades ago?
A. I definitely feel the difference. It’s most unfortunate.
Q. What do you think the biggest challenge will be for the person in your position as secretary 10 years from now?
A. Ten years from now, we must be a more modern Air Force. We are living off of equipment, aircraft and other platforms that are 25, 35, even 50 years old in some cases. This can’t go on forever. We have to buy new, and we have to keep advancing the ball on technology so that we stay ahead of our potential adversaries around the world.
Ten years from now, I also predict that we will be much more of a multi-domain Air Force. By that I mean we will get better and better at synchronizing our activities in the air with those of the cyber world and with capabilities in space—so we are not really an air force, we are an aerospace force.
Q. What leadership skills have you worked harder to personally develop?
A. I believe great leaders lead from their position of strength, meaning they do what they do well and they are not afraid to surround themselves with other great leaders who are their partners, who can contribute in ways that they are less strong.
So for example, I have strength and experience in business and in budgets. I also served in the Pentagon earlier in my career, so I know how things happen and don’t happen in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. These are some of my strengths.
But I have never served in combat, so I am surrounded by people who have, so they can bring that experience to the table and help me to make informed decisions. I am also not a technical person by way of background, so I surround myself with people who do deeply understand the types of technology to take us into the future.
Q. What has been key to your own career success?
A. My No. 1 lesson learned is be prepared to zigzag. Be flexible. Life will always throw you curveballs, both personally and professionally, just be prepared to zigzag when that happens.
Q. What’s a career or leadership lesson that you learned the hard way?
A. Early in my life—and through college, graduate school—my dream was I wanted to be in the State Department. And I thought, as a young person, I had done all of the right things. So at the age of 23, I moved to Washington and applied to the State Department, but for whatever reason, I was not accepted.
For about four days, I crashed. I was depressed. I remember crying a lot. I thought my young life was over, and I had wasted everything. But, on the fifth day, I had to get up. I had to apply elsewhere, and so I applied and got a job with the Department of the Army as my first job out of graduate school. It was not my heart’s desire, but it was a job and I was grateful for it.
A few months down the pike, the most remarkable thing started happening: I was extremely interested in these important, national issues that I now had the opportunity to work on, I had a great boss who turned out to be a wonderful mentor to me in my life, I had colleagues who were fun and took an interest in me.
From that point forward, one thing led to the next and led to the next. And 34 years later, I look back and I’m so grateful that the State Department didn’t take me back then—because I couldn’t imagine that my career could have been more fulfilling. I’ve had the best career ever in defense, and it all started with what felt like a complete failure.