Deborah Lee James

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Deborah Lee James
Deborah Lee James.JPG
23rd United States Secretary of the Air Force
Assumed office
December 20, 2013
President Barack Obama
Preceded by Eric Fanning (Acting)
Personal details
Born (1958-11-25) November 25, 1958 (age 57)
Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Duke University
Columbia University

Deborah Roche Lee James (born November 25, 1958) is the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force. James has 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience in the U.S. federal government and the private sector. Prior to being named Secretary of the Air Force, she served as President of Science Applications International Corporation's Technical and Engineering Sector, where she was responsible for 8,700 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue. James is the second woman (after Sheila Widnall 1993-1997) appointed to be the Secretary of the Air Force.

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.[1][2] She earned her B.A. (1979) in Comparative Area Studies from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She later earned her Masters Degree (1981) in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York City.

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

During the Clinton Administration, from 1993 to 1998, Ms. 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 advisor on all matters pertaining to the 1.8 million National Guard and Reserve personnel worldwide. In addition to working extensively with Congress, state governors, the business community, military associations, and international officials on National Guard and Reserve component issues, 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.

For nearly a decade, Ms. James held a variety of positions with SAIC to include Senior Vice President and Director of Homeland Security. From 2000 to 2001, she was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Business Executives for National Security, and from 1998 to 2000 she was Vice President of International Operations and Marketing at United Technologies.

Secretary of the Air Force[edit]

James was confirmed as 23rd Secretary of the Air Force on Dec. 13, 2013, and was appointed to the position Dec. 20, 2013.[3] In this position she is responsible for the affairs of the 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. The first days in office saw her dealing with a service that was reeling from the impact of Budget sequestration in 2013, continued troubles with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and a drug and cheating scandal with the LGM-30 Minuteman force.[4][5][6]

Attention on the Nuclear Enterprise[edit]

Three weeks after assuming her duties as Secretary news came that there was a significant cheating event in the ranks of the nation’s ICBM force. James responded with transparency with the media about the situation ensuring that “this was a failure of some of our Airmen; it was not a failure of the nuclear mission.” [7]

Over the next year, James visited the three Air Force bases that operate intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, with a determination to work with both Airmen and other senior Air Force leaders to provide fixes to the challenges faced.[8] James has cited USAF 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."[9]

The establishment of the Force Improvement Program, an aggressive grass-roots feedback program designed to quickly provide senior Air Force leaders with actionable recommendations for improvement through one-on-one interviews and surveys, identified more than 300 recommendations for improving the nuclear force. [10]

Some of the immediate improvements included funds to upgrade launch control centers, the underground bunkers where missileers 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 and extra pay to attract and keep people in key missile related career fields. [11]

Additionally James oversaw the establishment of the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal which is awarded to Airmen as they perform nuclear deterrence operations, providing safe, secure and effective deterrence for our nation, with the most powerful weapons in our nation's arsenal. [12] [13]

Addressing Congressional Mandates on Force Size[edit]

With a congressional mandate to reduce the size of the 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. [14] Force management is never an easy process and there were some missteps and James said she heard the concerns that the downsizing was straining the force from Airmen loud and clear during her travels. James 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 she heard their concerns and listened and “enough is enough” with regards to involuntary force management boards. [15] The Air Force began fiscal 2014 with 330,700 active-duty airmen, and by Nov. 6, its end strength had dropped to 316,500. The Air Force is now the smallest it has ever been since its establishment in 1947. [16]

SpaceX Certification[edit]

The process to certify SpaceX as a national security launch provider began in June 2013 with the signing of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA). [17] In April 2014 Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, filed a protest against the Air Force because of its decision to award a block buy contract to ULA as a sole source deal. [18] James directed an independent review panel to review the process for certifying SpaceX in January 2015 and as a result of this review, the Air Force and SpaceX revised the original CRDA to adopt these recommendations. [19] Certification was completed in May 2015 with SpaceX eligible to compete for its first launch mission in June 2015. [20]


As the Executive Agent for Space, James acknowledges that space is vitally important. The space domain is changing rapidly and the Pentagon plans to spend an extra $5 billion over the next five years to protect its satellites.[21]

Air Force Support to Counter-ISIL Operations[edit]

In August 2014 the Air Force began its air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in response to recent advances against stranded Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain and to stop an ISIL advance of Erbil.[22] In September 2014, the air campaign expanded to Syria. In October 2014, a multinational coalition, named Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve was established with a base in Kuwait to organize a joint command center in the fight against the militants.[23]

As of October 28, 2015 4,816 airstrikes have been recorded in Iraq with another 2,515 in Syria.[24]

Nepal Earthquake Response[edit]

Within 36 hours of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurring April 25, 2015 in Nepal, two U.S. Air Force C-17’s were en route transporting urban search and rescue teams and thousands of pounds of supplies from USAID.[25] James shared images of the C-17’s on her Facebook page going viral with more than 1.6 million impressions and 56 thousand likes, comments and shares. Over the next month the Air Force would send more than 50 Airmen to support relief operations.

RPA Manning Improvements[edit]

James has 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 remains 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.[26] 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.[27]


  1. ^ "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. "Date and place of birth: November 25, 1958; Long Branch, NJ.... Rumson Fair Haven Regional High School, High School Diploma, June 1976."
  2. ^ Burton, John. "RFH Alumnus Serves Nation", The Two River Times, May 16, 2014. Accessed November 27, 2015. "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."
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External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Eric Fanning
United States Secretary of the Air Force