Deborah Lee James

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Deborah James
Deborah Lee James.JPG
23rd United States Secretary of the Air Force
In office
December 20, 2013 – January 20, 2017
PresidentBarack Obama
Preceded byMichael B. Donley
Succeeded byHeather Wilson
3rd Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs
In office
June 1, 1993 – April 1, 1998
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byStephen M. Duncan
Succeeded byCharles L. Cragin (acting)
Personal details
Born (1958-11-25) November 25, 1958 (age 62)
Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Frank Beatty
EducationDuke University (BA)
Columbia University (MIA)

Deborah Roche Lee James (born November 25, 1958) served as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force. She is the second woman, after Sheila Widnall (1993–1997), to ever hold this position.

James was confirmed as 23rd Secretary of the Air Force on December 13, 2013, and started her tenure on December 20, 2013.[1] In her position she was responsible for the affairs of the United States Department of the Air Force, including organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of its more than 690,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen and their families, as well as disbursing the Air Force's annual budget ($139 billion in 2015).[2]

At the beginning of her tenure she dealt with the issues stemming from the USAF budget sequestration in 2013, continued troubles with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Congressional investigation of the USAF for its handling of sexual assaults,[1] and a drug and cheating scandal inside the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC).[3][4]

Early life and career[edit]

James was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1958. She grew up in nearby Rumson and graduated from Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in 1976.[5][6] She earned her B.A. (1979) in Comparative Area Studies from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and later earned her Masters Degree (1981) in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York City.

From 1983 to 1993, James worked as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, where she served as a senior adviser to the Military Personnel and Compensation Subcommittee, the NATO Burden Sharing Panel, and the Chairman's Member Services team.[2]

During the administration of President Bill Clinton, from 1993 to 1998, James served in the Pentagon as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. In that position, she was the Secretary of Defense's senior adviser on all matters pertaining to the 1.8 million National Guard and Reserve personnel worldwide. She oversaw a $10 billion budget and supervised a 100-plus-person staff. Prior to her Senate confirmation in 1993, she served as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs.[2]

For the better part of a decade, James held a variety of positions with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and from 2000 to 2001, she was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Business Executives for National Security. From 1998 to 2000 she was Vice President of International Operations and Marketing at United Technologies. Prior to being named Secretary of the Air Force, she served as President of SAIC's Technical and Engineering Sector with 8,700 employees. Overall, while James has no personal experience in the military, she has 30 years of senior homeland and national security bureaucratic and administrative experience in the U.S. federal government and the private sector.[2]

She is also a member of the Atlantic Council's[7] Board of Directors.

Secretary of the Air Force[edit]

Malmstrom Air Force Base controversy[edit]

Three weeks after assuming her duties as Secretary, the news came that there were morale problems in the ranks of the AFGSC. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was looking into alleged use of synthetic drugs by the airmen and uncovered during the probe facts of cheating on monthly proficiency exams at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.[8] Altogether, 92 officers were identified as involved in cheating scandal.[9]

James responded by saying, "this was a failure of some of our Airmen; it was not a failure of the nuclear mission."[10] Over the next year, James visited the three Air Force bases that operate intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, to work with both airmen and senior Air Force officers to provide fixes to the challenges faced.[11] James has cited USAF's inattention to the nuclear mission, to the point of using a simple test score as, "a top differentiator, if not the sole differentiator on who gets promoted," as one of the reason of morale's deterioration in the ICBM force.[12]

She helped to establish the Force Improvement Program (FIP), a grass-roots-type feedback program designed to quickly locate actionable recommendations for positive change through one-on-one interviews and surveys, identified more than 300 recommendations for improvement.[13] Some of the immediate improvements included funds to upgrade launch control centers, the underground bunkers where airmen and support staff serve 36-hour shifts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; more helicopter support to transport airmen to LCCs; additional manpower to help alleviate the strain on the force, as well as extra pay to attract and keep people in key missile related career fields.[3]

Additionally, James oversaw the establishment of the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal which is awarded for providing effective nuclear deterrence for the nation.[14]

Addressing the 2011–2013 Malmstrom Air Force Base debacle two years later at Aspen Security Forum, James said that, "We never found evidence of cheating beyond that one base, but we did find evidence of systemic problems across the board," which were addressed by increasing training, incentives and creating development opportunities.[15]

Reducing the size of the Air Force[edit]

With a congressional mandate to reduce the size of the Air Force, James decided to make cuts to meet the mandated end strength quickly in one-two fiscal years versus over five years, in order to alleviate some uncertainty for Airmen.[16] During her travels, James addressed concerns that the downsizing was straining the force. She confirmed that the Air Force was able to achieve force size and shape goals in fiscal year 2014 alleviating the need to conduct involuntary force management programs in fiscal year 2015. This was announced during her online town hall meeting when she told airmen that she heard their concerns with regards to involuntary force management boards.[11] The Air Force began 2014 fiscal year with 330,700 active-duty airmen; by November 6, 2014 this had dropped to 316,500 - the smallest it has been since its establishment in 1947.[11]

RPA manning issue[edit]

James acknowledged that the Air Force is a force under strain and one of the most impacted forces specifically are those that support remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations. RPA operations have surged nine times over the last eight years. With increased operations tempo, expiring active duty service commitments and reductions to the force, the current environment has resulted in projections reflecting more RPA pilots departing the service than the Air Force is able to produce as replacements via the training pipeline. Balancing Air Force ISR capability with finite resources remained a top priority for James so she worked to get monthly incentive pay beginning in January 2015, which was previously not permitted for RPA pilots, to be authorized.[17] James signed a memo increasing the monthly flight pay for 18X RPA pilots from a maximum of $650 to $1,500 per month if they stay in the RPA community beyond their six-year commitment after completion of undergraduate RPA training.[18]

Identifying current issues and threats[edit]

In 2015, James stated that half of the Air Force pilots were "not sufficiently ready" for a fight against an opponent with "integrated air defenses and surface-to-air missiles" despite prior technology investments including fifth generation fighters F-35 and F-22.[19] In addition to terrorism, James identified Russia as "the biggest threat" to U.S. national security.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Air Force Gets Second Female Secretary, National Journal, December 13, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d Official US Air Force Biography - Deborah Lee James
  3. ^ a b Robert Burns. Air Force launching fixes to nuclear program after recent failures Archived 2015-05-08 at the Wayback Machine, The Associated Press
  4. ^ AF releases criteria for new service medal, Air Force
  5. ^ Note: "Date and place of birth: November 25, 1958; Long Branch, NJ.... Rumson Fair Haven Regional High School, High School Diploma, June 1976." In Nominations Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, First Session, 113th Congress: Biographical Sketch of Deborah Lee James, United States Senate, 2013. Accessed November 27, 2015.
  6. ^ Note: "Deborah Lee James, has had, by her own estimation – and probably almost anyone else’s measure – a remarkable career. And it started at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School. James, a 1976 graduate of R-FH who grew up in Rumson, was confirmed 4 ½ months ago by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Air Force, only the second woman of 23 to hold that post." In Burton, John. RFH Alumnus Serves Nation, The Two River Times, May 16, 2014. Accessed November 27, 2015.
  7. ^ "Board of Directors". Atlantic Council. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
  8. ^ Adam Lowther. A year later: Responding to problems in the ICBM force, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 12 February 2015.
  9. ^ Air Force: 92 implicated in nuke cheating scandal, Washington Times, January 30, 2014.
  10. ^ David Usborne. US Air Force suspend 34 airman manning critical nuclear missile launch sites after discovering they cheated on proficiency tests by text, Independent, 16 January 2014.
  11. ^ a b c Stephen Losey. 'Enough is enough': No involuntary force cuts in 2015, Air Force Times, December 16, 2014.
  12. ^ Robert Siegel. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James discusses the Air Force's response to widespread cheating by nuclear missile operators on their monthly proficiency tests, NPR, March 31, 2014.
  13. ^ Air Force secretary: Morale, empowerment programs working, The Associated Press (Air Force Times reprint), February 22, 2015.
  14. ^ Robert Burns. Why nukes keep finding trouble: They're really old Archived 2015-05-05 at the Wayback Machine, The Associated Press, July 8, 2014.
  15. ^ Amaani Lyle. Air Force Secretary Addresses Priorities at Aspen Security Forum, DoD News, July 25, 2015.
  16. ^ Stephen Losey. AF secretary: 18,700 more airmen cuts before it's over, Air Force Times, May 29, 2014.
  17. ^ Air Force senior leadership addresses need to stabilize RPA enterprise , Air Force Public Affairs, January 15, 2015.
  18. ^ Jeff Schogol. Air Force raises monthly incentive pay for drone pilots, Air Force Times, January 16, 2015.
  19. ^ Phillip Swarts. Air Force secretary: Personnel need more training to meet high-end threats, Air Force Times, September 29, 2015.
  20. ^ Andrea Shalal. U.S. Air Force leader sees Russia as 'biggest threat', Reuters, July 8, 2015.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Michael B. Donley
United States Secretary of the Air Force
Succeeded by
Heather Wilson