Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: “We Must Restore the Readiness of the Force.”
The Air Force had a big 2018. In September, it proposed its biggest expansion in decades—a shift that could grow the force from its current tally of 312 airplane squadrons to 386 by 2030. The military branch is also at the center of President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force, which Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has estimated would cost $13 billion over five years. And on Tuesday, Wilson appeared with Vice President Mike Pence at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as he announced that the Department of Defense will establish a U.S. Space Command, which will reportedly work with the Air Force’s Space Command.
Wilson recently stopped by the Fortune offices for an interview, where she answered three essential questions:
What are the biggest challenges facing the Air Force right now?
“First and foremost we have to restore the readiness of the force to win any fight at any time,” says Wilson. “It’s gotten smaller and smaller, it’s getting overtaxed, which means we’re not getting enough training time in to be ready for all of our missions.”
She also pointed to importance of “cost effective modernization.” That’s a priority that extends throughout the organization and encompasses a host of projects, said Wilson. “It’s the nuclear deterrent, it’s space, it’s fighters, it’s trainers, it’s helicopters, it’s tankers.”
Her third priority? “To develop exceptional leaders.”
How is the Air Force working with Silicon Valley?
Whether or not technology companies are willing to engage with the military has become an important question—particularly after Google employees protested the company’s work with the Air Force on drone imaging AI program Project Maven. (Google has said it will not renew the contract when it expires in 2019.)
Asked what the Air Force is doing to engage tech companies, Wilson said, “we are working closely with innovative companies—not just in California but across the country—to try to get innovation faster and to try to get capability from the lab bench to the war fighter faster.” She added that the Air Force has signed four small launch providers for nanosatellites.
What advice would you give to women working in male-dominated industries?
According to the Pew Research Center, women account for about 15% of all active duty military personnel, though representation in the Air Force is a bit higher, at 19%.
Wilson was part of one of the earliest Air Force Academy classes to include female cadets, and has advice to offer to women who find themselves in male-dominated fields:
“Develop networks of people—not just women but men as well who become your mentors and also advocates,” she says. “Be a craftsman at your work. Build tools. Collect tools—different tools from different experiences in life and be able to apply those tools to new situations.”