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Air Force ‘ready to step to the plate’ on Ukraine, but drawdown still on track

Deborah Lee James, the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, speaks during an interview at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at the end of her first overseas visit since becoming the Air Force's top civilian leader in December. James spoke on a range of topics, from the situation in Ukraine to the Air Force drawdown.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — As Russia moves to tighten its control over Crimea, the U.S. Air Force stands ready to “step up to the plate” with whatever it may be asked to do, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said Sunday, calling the situation in Ukraine “very serious.”

“We’re able to surge as necessary,” she said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “We’ve kicked it up a notch with respect to some of our training, particularly with Poland and the Baltic policing mission, as well.”

Despite concern about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Air Force’s current plans to draw down the force remain on track, she said. She wouldn’t say whether she thought the Air Force needed to close any bases in Europe, deferring to the work of a European basing study, the results of which are expected to be announced in late spring or early summer.

“The situation between Russia and the Ukraine is not currently affecting our operations here in Europe, in terms of the way we project to reshape the Air Force in the future and our current operations,” she said. President Barack Obama would be consulting with allies and other top advisers during his visit this week to Europe, “talking about options, talking about how we may proceed” she added.

James was wrapping up her first visit to Europe and Afghanistan since she was formally sworn in as the Air Force’s top civilian leader in December. The 23rd Air Force secretary, James, 55, is only the second woman to hold the job.

A former defense industry executive and congressional aide with degrees from Duke and Columbia universities, she steps into the job at an extremely challenging time for the Air Force. With the military forced to rein in spending, the Air Force plans heavy cuts to personnel and fighter aircraft over the next several years. In addition, the service is reeling from a cheating scandal that came to light earlier this year involving about one-fifth of its missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

James spoke during the 20-minute interview about Europe and the service’s commitment to maintaining forward-operating bases on the Continent.

Ramstein, in particular, she said, “truly is a launching pad not only to Europe but also to Africa and to the Middle East. Location, time and distance really does count, and there are so many hot spots around the world, it’s terribly important to have a location such as we have here in Europe so that we can do our job with our allies and protect our interests around the world.”

About the basing study, James said: “We have not seen the analysis yet As someone who comes out of the business community, though, I would say that it always makes sense, if you can find ways to consolidate, to do so.” This allows more resources to be directed toward “higher-priority matters” such as readiness, modernization and people.

The current Air Force drawdown calls for reducing the service’s active-duty numbers by about 16,700 airmen in fiscal 2015 — and a total of 23,000 to 24,000 active-duty airmen over five years, James said.

The deep personnel cuts will require the Air Force to rely on its part-time force more, James said, and shift “some additional portions of missions towards the (National) Guard and Reserve. We will be leveraging our forces in different ways, expanded ways, to make sure we can get our jobs done.”

James said one of her top priorities as Air Force secretary will be combatting the problems of sexual assault and sexual harassment within the force. She supports keeping the authority to prosecute serious crimes, including sexual assault, in the hands of military commanders. The Senate earlier this month blocked legislation that would have stripped commanding officers’ power to decide when to prosecute such cases and would have given that authority instead to neutral military lawyers outside the chain of command.

“I think we’re making good progress” in addressing sexual assault, James said, but “there’s still a long way to go, and it’s going to require time and persistent leadership and persistent focus.”

Regarding the cheating scandal at Malmstrom, the Air Force’s investigation into what happened is almost completed, James said. “There is no indication, that I’m aware of, that the cheating was beyond Malmstrom,” she said. “It’s very important to emphasize that … despite this failure in integrity, that the nuclear mission was safe and secure.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this report.
svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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