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Remarks at Secretary of the Air Force Farewell Ceremony

Good morning, everyone. 

Well, in 1981, a recent Master’s graduate traveled to Washington to apply for the dream job she’d been working toward for years – a position with the U.S. Foreign Service.  But this aspiring diplomat’s so-called “Plan A” didn’t work out: the Department of State had no positions.

Thankfully this bright young graduate remained committed to serving her country – and the Defense Department was hiring.  So she decided to go with her “Plan B,” a position with the Department of the Army.  That job launched a career in national security that led her to Capitol Hill, the defense industry, and back to the Pentagon.

So General Goldfein, Members of Congress, Frank, DoD colleagues past and present: the State Department’s loss was our gain, because today, we’re here to celebrate Debbie James’s leadership as our 23rd Secretary of the Air Force – the pinnacle of a remarkable three-decade-long career safeguarding our nation’s defense. 

I want to especially welcome Debbie’s family – her husband Frank and her children Sam, Regina, and Michelle.  Thanks for the support you’ve provided her throughout her career – I know how much love and support you’ve given her; and I know you must be proud, as we are, of everything she’s accomplished. 

As Secretary, Debbie ensured that the Air Force continued to soar to new heights in defense of our great nation – sustaining the excellence we’ve come to expect over more than seven decades.  She led the organizing, training, and equipping of the more than 600,000 men and women in the United States Air Force – active-duty, Air National Guard, and reserve – always putting them, our people, first. 

And those airmen are out here right now, confronting no fewer than five immediate, evolving challenges around the world.  They’ve conducted over two-thirds of our coalition’s airstrikes against ISIL, enabling our partners to take back critical territory in Iraq and Syria, show that there cannot be an Islamic State based upon this ideology, dealing ISIL the lasting defeat that it deserves and will receive.  They’re basing advanced assets and maintaining continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific – the single region of the world most consequential region to our nation’s future – to safeguard allies and partners and to deter continued North Korean aggression.  In the face of Iran’s malign influence in the Gulf, they’re working closely with our partners to strengthen integrated air and missile defense capabilities across the region, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and maintain a strong and credible deterrent capability in the region.  And they’re playing a vital role in deterring Russian aggression in Europe – supporting our NATO allies, deploying F-22s, and spearheading a persistent and dominant air presence in the region.

In addition to these five challenges, our airmen have also continued to flawlessly execute the Air Force’s core missions around the world.  They maintain U.S. air and space superiority – ensuring that our military can operate and project power everywhere in the world.  They conduct countless ISR missions all over the world while maintaining the ability to rapidly mobilize to anywhere they’re called.  And they operate the capabilities that provide both global strike and command and control – critical elements of our nuclear deterrence. 

Of course, even as we meet these current challenges, Secretary James knows – and has helped us all and everyone in the Air Force remember – that we must find what she’s called, quote, “the right balance between preserving the Air Force of today and building toward the Air Force of tomorrow.”

Despite increasing optempo, Debbie always focused on readiness and growing the force to make sure our airmen can not only meet today’s challenges, but also address those that we may confront in the uncertain future.  To stay ahead and to maintain U.S. air superiority in the face of 21st century threats, she helped the Air Force advance key capabilities like the F-35 stealth fighter, the B-21 long-range strike bomber, and the KC-46 tanker, as well as innovative programs like the arsenal plane and swarming 3D-printed microdrones.

Recognizing that nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of our security, Debbie also demonstrated a strong commitment to sustaining that deterrence by reversing decades of underinvestment in the nuclear enterprise – not only to address troubling issues that had arisen over the years, but also to recapitalize both of the Air Force’s two legs of our nuclear triad: land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers.

Debbie’s leadership in this regard is truly a hallmark of her tenure, and it’s critically important.  In fact, she visited our Air Force’s nuclear bases on her first trip as Secretary, and she returned to Minot and Malmstrom on her final trip just last week.  There, she ran focus groups with nuclear force airmen – something she’s been doing since the beginning of her tenure – to learn how our policies are affecting them.  With these conversations, Secretary James has established an important feedback loop between airmen and senior leadership, and she’ll pass along the lessons learned from these conversations to her successor.

In addition to all this, Secretary James has also helped sustain our deterrence, and much more, by investing in space – a domain that’s woven into every aspect of our military operations today, conventional and nuclear alike.  To prepare for the future, Debbie has also been a key leader in making certain DoD is ready to deter and defend against attacks in space by making serious investments in the capabilities that enhance our ability to identify, to attribute, and to negate threatening actions by others in space.  And as the principal DoD space advisor, and the person upon whom I and the President have relied, Debbie has helped incorporate space, integrate space into our core contingency plans, and made sure our space capabilities are as resilient and assured as our nuclear capabilities – all the more important given that we now view space as a potential warfighting domain.

Now, of course, over the years, Secretary James has focused on the strength of the force – Debbie never lost sight of what that greatest strength is, our people.  She always put the men and women of the Air Force first, saying, “we’re going to take care of you and your families so that you in turn can take care of [all of] us.” 

And throughout her tenure, it’s clear that Debbie always takes care of America’s airmen first.  We see that in her advocacy for more resources to help our men and women carry out their missions.  We see it in the Get-Well Plan she established for the Air Force’s fleet of remotely-piloted aircraft, and in her dedication to supporting our nuclear force personnel – ensuring that they have the opportunities to advance and succeed in their careers.  And we also see it in her commitment to ridding the ranks of sexual assault, in particular by focusing on preventing these terrible offenses against honor and trust, which are the foundations of the profession of arms, from happening in the first place.

But Secretary James’s commitment to airmen extends beyond taking care of the force we have today.  She’s also been a wonderful partner in laying the groundwork for the Air Force, and the joint force, of the future – helping ensure that our military remains the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  Debbie has worked tirelessly to foster a long-term commitment to diversity and inclusion in the Air Force – rightly noting that, quote, “diversity of background, experience, and skill are paramount when it comes to innovation and [the] capability to perform.” And she’s taken a hands-on approach through mentorship and running a Lean In Circle.  Through her leadership, she’s fostered a commitment to developing the talents of the next generation of airmen – making sure that our Air Force will have not only the capabilities it needs, but also the leaders it needs to execute its core missions with excellence long into the future.

As we honor all of Secretary James’ contributions to this department and our country this morning, I know I speak on behalf of everyone here – and not only the entire Air Force, but also the entire Department of Defense – when I say to you, Debbie, that your “Plan B” worked out awfully well for the country and the department.

And Deb, I’ve got to say on a personal note, our friendship, and my admiration for you, go back many years.  I’ve been especially fortunate, though, in the last few years as Secretary of Defense, to have you as my trusted and unfailingly effective partner in strengthening and applying the Air Force.  Thanks, pal.

Because of your leadership, the United States Air Force is better prepared to fly, fight, and win than at any time in history.  Across the many missions we ask our Air Force to complete, across the many domains we ask them to dominate, the foundations of this proud service are stronger than ever.  Thank you, Debbie James, for your service to this country, for your commitment to our airmen, to their families, and to the joint force.  We’re safer today because of you.