Joined by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, James laid out the framework for her three top priorities for the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.
“Those three priorities are taking care of people, balancing today’s readiness with tomorrow’s readiness,” she said, “and ensuring that our Air Force is the most capable at the least cost to the taxpayer.”
Every job she’s ever had always has come down to people, 100 percent of the time, James said. “So taking care of people, to me, means we need to recruit the right people, retain the right people,” she added.
The secretary said developing people inside the force, and having a diversity of thought and backgrounds at the leadership table are needed to make innovative decisions and solutions going forward.
“We need to protect the most important family programs,” she said. “We need dignity and respect for all -- and that includes combating sexual harassment and assault.” It’s also important to ensure everyone in the Air Force is living the service’s core values of integrity, service and excellence all the time, James added.
The secretary noted two areas of that have generated controversy lately: force reductions and compensation.
“We are coming down in all of our components -- active, (Air National) Guard, Reserve and civilians,” James said. “And we will rely more, not less, in the future on our Guard and Reserve.”
That makes sense from both the mission standpoint and the budgetary standpoint, she said. “But as we draw down it’s not good enough just to get lower numbers,” she added. ”We have to reshape the force.” At the moment, James told the panel, the Air Force needs balance -- it has too many people in certain types of career fields and too few in others.
On compensation, James said the fiscal year 2015 budget request includes “reasonable ways” to slow the growth in military compensation across the Defense Department.
“This was one of those hard decisions that nobody is really happy with,” James said. “But it’s necessary to ensure that we free up some money to plow back into both the readiness of today as well as the modernization of tomorrow.” Fair compensation going forward, she added, also is part of taking care of the force.
James said her second priority is balancing today and tomorrow’s readiness. Air Force readiness has suffered over the years, she said, particularly last year, when flying squadrons were grounded, civilians were furloughed and maintenance was delayed because of sequestration spending cuts.
“In (fiscal year 2015), we have fully funded our flying hours and other high-priority readiness issues,” James said. “And if approved, we will see gradual improvements of readiness over time.”
While it won’t be overnight or in a year, the secretary said, “we’ll be on a good path of getting toward where we need to be.”
At the same time, the Air Force is looking to tomorrow, James said, and remains committed to programs such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, the KC-46 refueling tanker, the long-range strike bomber, and two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear triad: bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“We’re committed to all of this,” the secretary said. “We’re funding these going forward as well as beginning to replace aging platforms.”
The secretary noted her final priority is making every dollar count for the taxpayer. “To me, this means keeping acquisition programs on budget, on schedule,” she explained. “It means auditability as a fundamental principle of our good stewardship.”
It also means trimming overhead in the Air Force, including the 20 percent headquarters reduction Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed, she said, noting that she believes the Air Force will do even better than that.
James also emphasized the “very serious” impacts of reverting to sequestration-level budgets in fiscal 2016 and beyond, as current law requires.
“We do not recommend this,” she said. “We feel it would compromise our national security too much.” The bottom line is it’s a bad deal for the Air Force, the Defense Department and the country, James said, as she urged Congress to support the higher levels of defense spending under President Barack Obama’s budget.
James shared her vision of the Air Force in 10 years, projecting that it will be a highly capable, innovative and ready force.
“We will be a good value in everything that we do for our taxpayers,” she said. “We will be able to respond overseas decisively through unparalleled air power, and we’ll also stand ready to defend here at home when disaster strikes.
“We’ll be more reliant, not less, on our Guard and Reserve,” James continued, “and we will be powered by the very best airmen on this planet who live the culture of dignity and respect for all, integrity, service and excellence.”