JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii –
Although women comprise about 20 percent of the Air Force, the service needs to increase that ratio through better recruitment and retention policies and by opening combat-related fields to women, the Air Force’s top leader said Monday.
“Of all the military services, we have the highest proportion of women as compared to the others,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told a news conference that also included Gen. Lori Robinson, who became the first woman to lead an Air Force major component command when she assumed command of Pacific Air Forces last month.
Hawaii was James’ first stop on a 10-day tour of Pacific bases that will take her to Guam, Japan, South Korea and Alaska.
“The not-so-good news is that I don’t see why we can’t do better on that overall percentage,” said James, who became secretary 11 months ago. “If we’re upwards to 20 [percent] today, why can’t we be upwards to 30 percent in the years to come?”
At the same time, however, the Air Force is in the midst of cutting its roughly 690,000 active, Reserve and National Guard airmen and civilians by 20,000, she said. The cuts are “principally” active-duty airmen and “to a lesser degree” from the Reserve and National Guard, with several thousand civilian jobs being cut during the next five years.
“We’re coming down in all of our components, and we’re trying to do it in a very systematic way to reshape our force and make sure we have the right people in the right jobs going forward,” James said.
The Air Force has been using incentives to induce airmen to voluntarily leave when possible, but it’s also forced out others, she said.
The Air Force downsizing “will touch airmen in every region,” James said.
“But with that said, because this is such an important region, we man at 100 percent here in the Pacific,” she said. So regardless of whether Pacific theater airmen leave voluntarily or are forced out, their positions will ultimately be refilled, she said.
“I project that the downsizing should be done on the military side certainly by next summer, which is good news because I want our airmen focused on their families and their jobs and their own development and not worrying about the uncertainties of the future,” James said.
The Air Force faces a quandary in losing women after they’ve served about seven to 10 years. The attrition rate for women is twice as high as men at that mid-career level, she said.
“So we need to bore down and figure out why that’s happening and how can we turn that around,” she said, turning to face Robinson, whom she had nominated for the PACAF position. “Because, of course, to produce more Gen. Robinsons in future years, you’ve got to make sure that we retain some of these terrific women.
“I’m not satisfied that we have enough in the senior ranks at the moment. We’re probably better than the other services at the moment, but that’s still not good enough.”
The Air Force currently doesn’t allow women to hold the positions of combat rescue officer, special tactics officer and special operations weather officer, along with several enlisted positions: combat controller, tactical air command and control party, pararescue and enlisted special operations weather. The Air Force has stated it will open those fields to women at the beginning of 2016.
James said the Air Force is working on “gender-neutral standards” for those fields.
“That is to say, whatever the standard is, it will be the same for men and women, but then let’s see if we can’t open it up and let qualified applicants compete,” she said.
James said her three priorities have been taking care of personnel, assuring combat readiness and making every dollar count.
To achieve that third aim, the nation needs another round of base closures and realignments, she said.
“I’ve had a whole part of my career in the private sector, and I can tell you without question, a business would never spend money on leases or on buildings that were no longer needed at the expense of reinvesting those dollars in their people and their technology and in their future,” she said.
The Defense Department estimates it has about 24 percent excess capacity worldwide, she said, representing a huge outlay of money each year for building maintenance and leases “that we don’t need for the future.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a group of troops Sunday that he was going to ask Congress to establish a base-closure committee.
Congress has expressed little desire to undertake another round of closures because they ultimately mean the loss of jobs in the districts they represent.
But the Defense Department will again face forced sequestration funding cuts for fiscal year 2016, which begins next October, unless Congress and the White House can agree on a deal to provide needed revenues. The projected cost savings from base closures could end up being a part of that deal.
Pentagon officials have said another round of cuts in personnel and equipment will affect readiness.
“Sequestration remains the law of the land in FY16, and unless Congress passes a new law to eliminate it or change it or lift it, we will be back to where we were, and that concerns me a great deal about our current readiness,” James said.