By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 – Cadets graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy as second lieutenants are entering the profession of arms at a time of unprecedented change and challenges, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told the Class of 2015 today in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Delivering the commencement speech at the academy’s Falcon Stadium, James said changes in geopolitics, technology and threats had taken place since the cadets began their four years of intense leadership training.
“Four years ago we were engaged across the world in many different missions and today we still are, but I would give that an uptick -- we are more globally engaged than we were four years ago,” James told the audience, detailing the changes.
Some of the world actors have changed, as have locations our nation worries about, she said.
“Our budgets are tighter, and from a technological standpoint the gaps between us and our nearest competitors are closing,” James said.
A high operations tempo coupled with frequent deployments and aging equipment prompt concerns about readiness across the Air Force. And disruptive technologies and weapons once possessed only by advanced nations are in the hands of a growing cast of nonstate actors and terrorist organizations, the secretary said.
“China and Russia meanwhile are plowing full-speed ahead with their military modernization programs,” she added, “and they're developing worrisome advanced capabilities like anti-air, counter-space and defensive cyber warfare capabilities.”
In the last year alone, the Air Force helped take the fight to the Middle East against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Air Force secretary said. Airmen helped curb the Ebola epidemic in Africa, provided humanitarian aid after multiple earthquakes in Nepal, and helped reassure U.S. allies in Europe against a resurgent Russia, James said.
“If there’s one thing that’s clear to me in the year and a half that I've been honored to be secretary of the Air Force, it’s that when big things happen around the world, the president of the United States calls 1-800-USAF and … we kick into action -- big time,” she said.
Because the pace of operations is unlikely to slow, James urged the graduating cadets “to lead us into the future because you are the next generation of leaders that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter calls the force of the future.”
Future Air Force leaders must be open to new ideas, welcome new ways of doing business and understand that the world is much more dynamic and complex than it has ever been, she told the cadets.
“Remember, graduates,” James said, “ultimately we exist for one reason, and that is to deter and defend and if necessary to fight and win America's wars.”
Everyone, she added, regardless of job description, career field or whether they are active duty, guard, reserve or civilian -- has a role to play in the fundamental mission.
“Secretary Carter and I believe that your success, your ability to lead us into that future and to fight and win America's wars will rest on three main pillars,” James said.
The first is to extend the technological edge over potential adversaries, she said. The second is to ensure that the Air Force is efficient and accountable and the third is to ensure that the future force leverages the finest talent America has to offer, James added.
Of the more than 800 cadets graduating today from the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2015, 89 are continuing on to graduate school, 360 are going directly into pilot training, 44 are destined for nuclear or missile operations, and 89 are headed for the fields of space and cyberspace, the secretary said.
The Class of 2015 also is one of the most diverse classes in academy history, with more than 20 percent women and 26 percent minorities, James said.
“Going forward,” she said, “I think we can and must do even better, because … our future readiness will depend in part on our ability to successfully draw the best talent from every sector of society and every corner of this nation.”
This, she added, is why the Air Force is committed to “diversity and inclusion in our Air Force, to expanding opportunities for women, … removing barriers for same-sex couples [and] creating more on ramps and off ramps,” so personnel can more seamlessly go from active duty to national guard or reserve and back at different times in their careers.
“It's why we're developing leaders who are committed to an ethical and expert profession of arms and will focus on a culture where everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” the secretary said, “leaders who will take care of their people [in] an Air Force where sexual assault simply has no safe haven.”
James said the bottom line for future airmen is to institute Air Force core values -- integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all they do -- in every action going forward.
“I charge you to lead us into a future where you will need to confront and … overcome challenges unlike anything you could have imagined. You'll be asked to solve complex and multifaceted problems and your resolve will be tested over and over,” James said.
She added, “I charge you to lead us into the future with a more diverse and inclusive workforce and to help foster an environment and culture of dignity and respect, and … to care for the men and women under your command as well as their families.”