U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said she got to cross an item off her bucket list while visiting Beale Air Force Base Monday: She rode in the chase car as a U-2 landed.
Besides getting the chance to do something she’s always wanted to do, the head of the Department of the Air Force said she was impressed with what she saw at Beale.
“This has been on my list for several months to come here. It’s a very important mission for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but there is also a lot of innovation going on here. So, I wanted a chance to see it in person,” said Wilson.
She attended a dinner with Yuba-Sutter community members Sunday night and during an interview Monday afternoon she said she was most impressed with what was going at the squadron level of the base.
“The chief of staff and I are trying to drive authority and responsibility at the lower levels and really strengthen the squadrons. The squadrons here seem to have taken that to heart and are really driving innovation – I saw that in the 99th Squadron, I also saw that at the Distribution Common Ground Station. They are really driving innovation, and the demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is insatiable,” Wilson said.
Wilson is the 24th Secretary of the Air Force, nominated by President Donald Trump and officially sworn in May 2017. She is responsible for all of the Department of the Air Force’s affairs. She oversees the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $138 billion and directs strategy and policy development, risk management, weapons acquisition, technology investments and human resource management across a global enterprise, according to her official biography.
She said Beale has a unique mission because of its responsibility for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“It’s an unusual mission because of the U2s, which are pretty special, but also the Global Hawks, and then you’ve got active guard and reserve here, so it’s a total force base. It’s a part of their combat command, but it’s not your typical fighter base. It’s unusual and very high performing,” she said.
She highlighted how there is construction currently going on at the base on the Distribution Common Ground System Facility, and how there are plans being carried out to improve the base’s energy resilience.
“The downside of having a 23,000-acre base is that it’s very difficult to get power from one place to another place, and this base is very power intensive. The civil engineers have put together a pretty good long-term plan for the base and they are executing that plan to make the energy infrastructure to be more resilient,” Wilson said.
Aside from those projects, she said there are no plans at the moment to expand missions at the base. When considering expanding missions, she said the Air Force considers two issue – the quality of the public schools available for service member’s children and families, and “reciprocity of the licensure” for the family members. The latter is best described as when a service member is assigned to a different base – say, their family member has a license to teach in Nevada – that when they move to California that same family member would be able to get a job as a teacher without delay.
She said that’s more of a state issue rather than a federal issue, but that she’s asked the National Governors Association to help define what the criteria should be.
“My advice to every state is, if you are interested in keeping or growing missions, to look at the states next to you. You want to be the base of preference. You want to be the base where airmen want to be, because the schools are good, the health care is great, the quality of life is good and their spouse can manage to get a job without too much of a hassle. That’s the kind of community that really helps the base to thrive and supports the mission,” she said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military changed its National Defense Strategy to focus more on the reemergence of great power competitions – namely with Russia and China – over concerns of rapid innovation and military capabilities of the competing nations. Wilson said the issue will be a defining national security challenge over the coming decade.
“The military, and the Air Force – like the other services – has been focused on combatting violent extremism over the last 27 years. We now have to pivot and focus on what the airmen call ‘the high-end fight,’” Wilson said.
She said the National Defense Strategy calls for five things at once, including defending the homeland; providing for a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent; competing, deterring and winning against the nation’s peer adversary, while deterring a rogue state at the same time; and continuing the fight against violent extremism but at a lower level of effort.
“All of those missions are demanding on the Air Force, and they are all very heavily reliant on command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” she said.
To account for this growing demand, she said, the Air Force will need to increase its tanker squadrons and bombers, as well as bolster its intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and command and control.
Fate of the U-2
Though there have been talks over the years about potentially retiring the U-2, Wilson said there are no plans currently. She said the aircraft is highly versatile and can do things that other aircraft cannot.
“I was actually on the Intelligence Committee in the Congress when they were considering retiring the U-2 and replacing it with the Global Hawk, and it was the Congress that said ‘no’ because the U-2 is a Mr. Potato Head kind of airplane and it can do a lot of different missions and has capabilities that the Global Hawk didn’t have. So, they are complementary, and we don’t have any plan at this point to divest in the U-2,” Wilson said.
Beale Air Force Base is home to the U-2 Dragon Lady.
Importance of Community Support
The Yuba-Sutter community largely depends on Beale Air Force Base, considering it is the area’s largest employer. However, it goes both ways, Wilson said, and it’s important for service members to involve themselves in the local community.
“It’s a community issue in that there are leaders in the community who are willing to stand up and defend the presence of an air base, and there are some communities where it is stronger than others. It’s a tremendous help,” she said.
She said it’s important to have community support for airmen to feel welcome. She said the situation has drastically improved compared to 30 years ago.
“The Air Force cannot survive and its bases cannot thrive without the support of the community around them,” Wilson said.