Air Force secretary says avoiding spending cuts ‘No. 1 concern’

On her first official visit to Nellis Air Force Base, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said Monday she will stress to her colleagues in Washington what she heard from local airmen: Don’t let automatic budget cuts under sequestration happen again.

“That’s my No. 1 concern,” James, 56, said in a meeting with reporters at the Thunderbirds hangar, referring to the 2013 budget cuts under the sequester law that canceled some vital air combat training exercises at Nellis and put the Air Force under a tiered readiness structure for the first time since it was established in 1947.

“What I have heard here at Nellis caused me all the more to take the message back to Washington. We must not return to a sequestration-level budget. Sequestration-level budgets really, really hurt the military,” she said. “Here at Nellis we had to cancel some of the weapons school activities. We had to pull back in Red Flag exercise activities.”

James arrived in Southern Nevada on Friday and received briefings on the Weapons School, Red Flag and Green Flag exercises.

She also toured remotely piloted aircraft operations at Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas at Indian Springs.

She said highlights of her trip included observing a training exercise that involved Air Force assets supporting soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

James said she talked to airmen who have endured combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan “and they told me that the experience here was in many ways much more challenging than what they had encountered in past deployments. That’s exactly what we want. That’s perfect training.”

As Air Force secretary, she commands a $110 billion budget and oversees more than 690,000 active-duty airmen, Guard and Reserve troops.

When asked for her thoughts on retiring A-10 close air support jets to be replaced by F-35 joint strike fighters, James noted that A-10s “have been a terrific platform for us and have done tremendous work over the decades.

“Everyone is literally sad that A-10s eventually have to retire,” she said, adding that currently there are “five or six” other aircraft that can provide close air support, including fighter jets, remotely piloted Predators and Reapers, and bombers such as the B-1 Lancer.

“We feel we’ve got that mission fully covered,” James said.

James said A-10s have performed 20 percent of close air support operations since 2006.

Asked about a “friendly fire” incident involving a B-1 Lancer that killed five soldiers in Afghanistan earlier this month, James said “I am absolutely heart-struck for the families of the soldiers who died. … We don’t know what happened and we won’t know until the investigation is concluded.”

On Feb. 24, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon will retire the A-10 fleet by 2020 to save more than $3.5 billion. The A-10, as well as aging F-16s, will be replaced by F-35 joint strike fighters.

The Pentagon’s plan calls for a phased approach for retiring 283 A-10s through 2019. Nellis has 14 regular Air Force, Air National Guard and Reserve A-10s.

James said that one of her goals as Air Force secretary is to ensure that the cost of the nation’s most expensive weapons system, the F-35, is driven down as more become operational, as expected in 2016.

“It truly is a leap ahead in terms of capability,” she said. “And of course as an Air Force official, if we ever have to go into a high-end fight, I don’t want to see a fair fight. I want to see every advantage for our side, our people.”

The Pentagon plans to acquire 2,443 F-35s. Some will go to at least eight partner nations: the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada.

Nellis now has four F-35 Lightning IIs but is expected to have 36 for testing and training by 2020.

The latest one, priced at $67 million, was flown to Nellis from Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Fort Worth, Texas, in April 2013.

James became the 23rd secretary of the Air Force with Senate confirmation on Dec. 13. She replaced acting secretary Eric Fanning who had held the post since June 21, 2013, when Michael Donley resigned.

James is the second woman to hold the post after Sheila Widnall, who was Air Force secretary from 1993 to 1997.

James was tapped for the job by President Barack Obama while she was working for engineering giant, Science Applications International Corp., as president of its technical and engineering sector. She was in charge of 8,700 workers and more than $2 billion in revenue.

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