National Press Club

Air Force secretary cites air power success against ISIS, but sees strains on the smallest force since 1947

December 2, 2015 | By Lorna Alddrich |

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James makes a point during her National Press Club luncheon speech Dec. 2.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James makes a point during her National Press Club luncheon speech Dec. 2.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James underlined the importance of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the fight against Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the terrorist organization ISIS, in a National Press Club luncheon speech Dec. 2.

James, just returned from a tour of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, said that Air Force commanders in war zones are asking for more “ISR,” as she termed the three information-gathering activities.

The information forms the basis of the daily Air Targeting Orders that control air strikes against the terrorists, she said. Targeting, she explained, begins with study and collection of data, which commanders analyze to form assessments of the prospects for success of individual sorties.

After these assessments, she said, "We wait and watch and we wait some more" -- looking for the presence of enemy activity and the absence of civilian activity before finally selecting the weapon for the target.

She elaborated by stressing that the care taken to minimize collateral damage is unprecedented in warfare. Given the thousands of sorties flown, it is “a miracle” that there is only a handful of collateral incidents, she said.

In answer to her own question, "How we doing?" James said that the commanders she consulted agree that "air power is getting its job done."

As evidence, she cited the diminished size of the Daesh area of operation. It has been reduced by 20 percent to 25 percent from a year ago, she said.

Beyond air power, the indigenous ground forces also need to do their job, she said, adding that pressure must be applied in political and diplomatic channels as well.

"Keep in mind that this fight is not going to be over tomorrow," she said.

James stressed the importance of continuing to fight other terrorist groups Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab along with Daesh.

A further complication, she noted, is Russian activity in Syria, which she said is not directed against Daesh but working to buttress Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.

James underlined the role of remotely piloted aircraft(RPA), popularly known as drones, in both supplying intelligence and striking targets, although she listed a wide range of conventional aircraft that operate as well.

She emphasized the stress on drone operators, who “fly” 900 to 1100 hours per year compared with 200 to 300 for pilots of conventional aircraft. The fight against Daesch, in addition to existing commitments, means 13- to 14-hour days for these operators. Also, she said, because of the necessity to shift instructors to operations, development of more operators is limited.

To alleviate strains, she said that the Air Force is increasingly is using contractors for surveillance, but not strikes. Other steps include incentive pay and leveraging ISR from the Army.

Summarizing the situation the Air Force faces, James said that "we are the greatest Air Force on the planet." But she also noted that the Air Force is the smallest it's been since it was established in 1947, the busiest it has ever been and that it is operating with aging equipment.

James said some planes, "are as old as I am," then joked that she is 29, implying that the planes are much older than that.

For fiscal year 2017, the Department of Defense is budgeted for $17 billion less than requested, she pointed out.

In answer to a question on sexual harassment, she said reports of harassment incidents are going up and the number of incidents going down. Progress is being made on all fronts except one, she reported. That front is retaliation -- some official by bosses, but more from peer retaliation in the work unit, she said.