Obama Nominates James for Top Air Force Job

If confirmed, James will become the Air Force's top civilian leader at a time when the service faces steep budget cuts and widespread criticism over a spate of sexual assault scandals.

The White House has nominated an executive at the defense contractor SAIC Inc. and a former assistant secretary of defense to be the next Air Force secretary.

President Barack Obama yesterday announced the nomination of Deborah Lee James, president of the technical and engineering sector at the McLean, Va.-based company, to succeed Michael Donley, who retired in June.

If confirmed by the Senate, James will be the second woman to hold the Air Force’s top job. Sheila Widnall, an aerospace researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served in the position from 1993 to 1997.

“Deborah’s strong record of public service and leadership in the private sector makes her uniquely qualified to be my nominee for Secretary of the Air Force,” Obama said in a statement.

James, who lives in Virginia, has spent more than a decade at SAIC, according to her LinkedIn profile. She also held leadership positions at Business Executives for National Security, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and United Technologies Corp., based in Hartford, Conn. Before entering the private sector, she served in government, as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998 and previously as a staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.

James would become the service’s top civilian leader at a time when the military faces steep budget cuts and criticism over a spate of sexual assault scandals.

The chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response branch, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, in May was arrested and charged with sexual battery after allegedly groping a woman outside a strip club near the Pentagon. The service hired a woman, Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who investigated the abuse of female recruits by trainers at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to take over the job.

A month earlier, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, ignited a firestorm when he chose to overturn the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson III, a fellow fighter pilot who was accused of fondling the victim as she slept in his guest bedroom.

Legislation has since been introduced that would strip an officer’s authority to change or dismiss a court-martial.

Eric Fanning, undersecretary of the Air Force, is serving as acting Air Force secretary until Donley’s replacement is confirmed, according to the Defense Department.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.