Air Force Magazine Senior Editor Rachel Cohen and Editorial Director John Tirpak discuss the March 8, 2019, resignation of Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, PhD, who will step down from office in May to become the new president of the University of Texas at El Paso and the revelation by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., that she was raped when she served on active duty in the Air Force with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association’s headquarters in Northern Virginia.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Northern Virginia at the Air Force Association Headquarters building just outside Washington, DC where our offices are located on the day that Heather Wilson has resigned as Secretary of the United States Air Force. Rachel Cohen is the Senior Editor with Air Force Magazine and the Editorial Director is John Tirpak who is familiar to anybody who’s been listening to our podcasts.
John, let me start with you. Big news, very much unanticipated. There were folks who saw Secretary Wilson as somebody who would have stayed maybe a little bit longer maybe even in contention, for example, to become the Defense Secretary. There are those who say she’s decided to take this opportunity at the University of Texas, El Paso, in part because she may not have gotten that.
Talk to us, what do we know, what the Air Force has said, what she’s said. You were at an extraordinary event with her, actually last night, on Thursday night before this announcement was made. Tell us a little bit about how this all unfolded, and what, more importantly, it means for the United States Air Force given that she was seen as such a great Secretary.
Mr. Tirpak: I personally take it at face value. Typically over the last 70 years Defense Secretaries and Service Secretaries tend to serve about two years before they go on to a better paying job or one that requires less hours and less travel. The Service Secretaries really put in a lot of hours and it’s a pressure cooker job.
The fact that this is a job with a university indicates this didn’t happen in the last week. They’ve obviously been talking to her for a couple of months, and she’s been thinking about it for a couple of months.
Mr. Muradian: Any indication yesterday, you were at a screening at the Air and Space Museum of the new Captain Marvel movie. I’m going to ask you for a little bit of a review after that because you went to it with your daughter. Any indication at all from her that she was going to step down yesterday?
Mr. Tirpak: No, there was no indication of that, and her popularity remains unabated. The lines of airmen seeking to have a selfie with her was very, very long, as it usually is.
Mr. Muradian: And Rachel, let me bring you into the conversation. What do you think her legacy is going to be? You could say that one female Secretary was succeeded by another. It’s the only service that’s had three females; it’s the only service that’s had female Secretaries, and three of them over the past 25 or so years. What do you think her legacy is going to be, given how closely you’ve covered her?
Ms. Cohen: I think considering that she came from academia, she came from a science and tech background, she’s really pushed to kind of broaden where the Air Force gets its R&D expertise from. So it’s not particularly surprising. She said that being a college president is the best job in the world. So you can read into that and say it’s not particularly surprising that she’s going back to it.
I think her legacy is going to be as somebody who, in conjunction with Will Roper, has been kind of leading part of the push to speed acquisition up, kind of think outside the box for acquisition, and really sort of get the major S&T programs rolling in a way that they weren’t necessarily before.
Mr. Muradian: And I should have said this up at the top, Secretary Wilson was an Air Force Academy graduate. She also has a PhD. I think she was a Rhodes Scholar, if I’m correct. And she also was the Chancellor of Colorado School of Mines. Is that right?
Ms. Cohen: South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Mr. Muradian: So she returns to academia.
I know it may be a little bit early to talk about successors, but who are some folks who are lining up as successors? There are some folks who think Representative Adam Kinzinger, obviously an F-16 pilot, Air Force Reservist might be somebody who could fill those shoes. Any scuttlebutt on who could be the next Secretary to replace Wilson?
Mr. Tirpak: It’s really early, and I think a lot of people were surprised by this happening today. There will certainly be plenty of time for a smooth transition since she’ll be in the job until May.
I’ve heard that maybe Matt Donovan will move up from the Under Secretary position, but I haven’t heard any other names really floating around.
Mr. Muradian: And another person you know, a certainly qualified U.S. Air Force colonel, so he knows about the Air Force and how to run it being the number two as he is.
So any names that you’ve picked up ricocheting around, whether from the last time? You know, before we were talking you said hey, I wonder about all the people who were in the bin the last time around.
Ms. Cohen: I think John just mentioned Barbara Barrett, the former FAA Administrator. But other than that, it’s day one of this and I haven’t heard anything else yet. But Captain Marvel might be free. [Laughter].
Mr. Muradian: John, you’ve covered for 30-plus years now the Air Force. How do you think she will fit in in the long history of the Air Force in terms of what her legacy’s going to be?
Mr. Tirpak: I think her signature achievement was leading the Air Force during a period where they were struggling to restore their readiness. For the years during the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force readiness continued to decline both as a factor of funding and overuse of the people and the equipment. She supervised getting back to the levels that the Air Force needs to be.
Ms. Cohen: I also think that she’s going to be kind of remembered as one of the pivotal figures in this initial Space Force debate and Space Command debate. She hasn’t always been a fan of Space Corps, as Congress first proposed it. So even though she apparently won’t be here anymore to kind of be shepherding that through, I think that her voice has been instrumental in getting that started.
Mr. Muradian: John, you had a very, very amusing comment regarding how there wasn’t sufficient — how did you put it earlier?
Mr. Tirpak: Her travails with the Space Force reminded me a lot of the funeral of Kim Jong-il and people who lined the funeral route. If they didn’t show enough grief, tearing their clothes and weeping, they could be arrested. She really didn’t show as much enthusiasm for Space Force I think as the President wanted when that rolled out, and she made the correct point that it could cost a lot of money to set this up and perhaps not deliver as much as the money was spent.
Mr. Muradian: So how is that going to play out? That’s going to be a budget item. We’re going to see a lot of things that we’ve already heard about like F-15X. There are going to be some things that we don’t know about but we’re going to learn next week.
How do you think this plays out without her at the helm given how closely the Air Force leadership has at least tried to have a good outcome on all of this?
Mr. Tirpak: She is going to be in the position for quite some time yet. She’s staying on board until May, and she’s not joining the new school until September, so she wanted to be with the Air Force through this testimony process and ushering in this last budget of hers.
Ms. Cohen: We are expecting to see some money to start standing up the Space Force Headquarters. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is part of the talks before whoever is going to be the Space Force Secretary. I mean Congress still has to approve that plan that they sent over to the Hill, but I do think that she is still going to have some opinions. She’s still in charge for the next three or four months.
Mr. Muradian: Is it a foregone conclusion that Congress is going to support this? Because there are some who think that Congress may not be as supportive as the administration would like them to be?
Mr. Tirpak: There are some very vocal supporters of Space Force who actually launched this initiative before the President did. But I think the rank and file are very skeptical of this and are wondering if this is just an opportunity to spend more money on bureaucracy.
Ms. Cohen: I think the turnover in House leadership is going to prove kind of interesting, because HASC Strategic Forces is now headed by Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who’s a Democrat, who was a big proponent of the Space Corps proposal when it came out I believe in the last NDAA. And then the Ranking Member is Mike Turner of Ohio who is — he’s still skeptical. He wants to make sure that DoD isn’t rushing into anything that it can’t support financially or can’t support with people. So I think there’s a lot of details still to be worked through on how exactly they’re going to roll this out and make sure that the missions are divided up correctly.
Mr. Muradian: Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, when Mike Rogers was the Chairman of the Committee, there was much more unanimity between Cooper and Rogers over the idea of a Space Corps, whereas Mike Turner, two-term Dayton Mayor, Wright-Patterson was in his district or just outside his district. So he was much more passionate, much more I think reflective of where the Air Force’s position on this is. Hey, wait a minute, is this a really good idea at the end of the day?
I want to take you guys to the blockbuster revelation by Senator McSally that she was raped when she was an Air Force pilot. Obviously she’s a historic figure in the Air Force. John, you and I were talking about when this first block of combat female airmen were unveiled to us 25 years ago or so. Tell us what this revelation means, and Rachel, does this change the vector of this debate? The services have been working on this sexual assault problem for decades now. Is this what it’s finally going to take to move the needle?
Mr. Tirpak: I spoke to Secretary Wilson last night at the DC Premier of Captain Marvel, and she was asked quite appropriately about Senator McSally’s remarks. All she would say was that she’d been friends with the Senator for 20 years and has great respect for the way she’s handled this with a lot of grace. That’s where she stopped talking.
This has been a problem for the Air Force at the Air Force Academy, Basic Training, and various other places, and every time they think they’ve got a handle on it it rears its ugly head again. I frankly don’t think they know what they’re going to do about it.
Ms. Cohen: I think certainly it does a lot to continue humanizing the issue. The more senior leaders, whether in Congress or in the services, that come forward and say yes, this has also happened to me as well, I do think that it furthers the debate. I’m not entirely sure that it’s going to be that thing that pushes the needle a little farther. But she joins Iowa Senator Joni Ernst who has also had similar issues in her past.
So I think there’s definitely discussion underway about what the next steps should be. I think Congress needs to sit down and have a hard look at what its options might be. But I think it will still be some time before there’s some actual legislative fix for it. It’s more of a cultural thing.
Mr. Muradian: I remember I was at the Corona where Buzz Mosely, in the middle of it was unfortunately relieved as Chief of Staff of the Air Force and when Mike Winn also was sacked. By the way, John, I still think that your article was the high water mark in coverage of all of the dynamic factors that went into that. For historical purposes, if anybody wants to see real first-class reporting, that was it.
But being there, I thought it was interesting that when that sexual assault — and Corona is where all the entire uniformed leadership of the Air Force gets together to make some strategic decisions. It was a great session. But one of the things was how frustrated I remember Buzz Mosely was about that. And when he was getting these figures he was like look, you know, if your parents didn’t raise you right to know that this was right and wrong, I told you this in Basic Training. Do I need to keep training you or slap you on the wrist? Once we prove you did it, we need to throw you out of the service. And he said if we throw everybody out from four-star generals to airmen we might throw out 10,000 the first year, but I guarantee you we’ll throw out 8,000 the second. His point was if we have to throw out 100,000, let’s do that. Right? But at the end of the day we have to stop this.
Are there folks who are thinking, and maybe I’ll start with you Rachel, more creatively about this? Granted, some of these incidents have been in the past, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ve entirely gone away because we still hear about, whether it’s sailors rigging up camera–, there’s always some foolishness at best, and frankly, criminal activity at worst?
Ms. Cohen: I think an important first step to note is that you need to normalize a culture of reporting this. It certainly will not go away any time soon, and I think as more people feel empowered to talk about it and know that there will be a system in place to make sure that their concerns are heard properly and vetted properly and that the people who are doing this are going to come to sort of justice, whether that be being thrown out of the service, whether that be being kicked down in rank, whatever. I think that will start turning the wheel a little bit.
People do things that they think they can get away with, right? I think the cultural discussions that are underway in America as a society right now will also permeate the military, and I think there needs to be more work done — They just had a hearing, I don’t remember where on the Hill, so they just had a hearing to discuss sort of the sexual assault issues within the Service Academies and I think once you go in and you kind of take steps at that level too, that will start having effects as they get older as well.
Mr. Tirpak: I agree with everything Rachel just said. And remembering that the U.S. military is 1.5 million people, it’s a microcosm of American society. So it’s going to manifest things that we see in society, and that’s where we have to start.
Mr. Muradian: And one last thing, to end it on a slightly more positive note. What did you think of Captain Marvel? Is it as good as it frankly looks? It looks like it’s pretty good.
Mr. Tirpak: You’ll see a lot of what you have see in other Marvel movies. A lot of the same people are in the movie. Not as much Air Force as we were expecting, and I spoke to the Director afterwards and commented that we were primed for hearing that there was going to be a lot of Air Force in this movie. He said a lot of that had to be edited out because we didn’t want the viewer to know more about Captain Marvel’s past than she did. There’s a big amnesia part of this plot. So that’s why it didn’t make it into the final cut.
Mr. Muradian: So what you’re saying is everybody has to go see it if we want to see another Captain Marvel that has a bigger Air Force role in it?
Mr. Tirpak: I’m not going to spoil anything. [Laughter].
Mr. Muradian: Were you there also for this?
Ms. Cohen: I was not.
Mr. Muradian: I was going to get like competing reviews.
Rachel Cohen, Senior Editor at Air Force Magazine, and Air Force Magazine’s Editorial Director, John Tirpak. Thanks very much, guys. I really appreciate it. Especially since I know you guys are on deadline for this story. Thanks very much.