On Wednesday, Gina Ortiz Jones testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in her confirmation hearing for the position of Undersecretary of the Air Force. Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer and Iraq War veteran who previously ran as a Democrat in Texas’ 23rd congressional district, was nominated for the job by President Biden.
Jones testified alongside several other Defense Department nominees. She began her opening remarks by telling her own personal story of service. “Today, I am joined by my mother Victorina Medenilla Ortiz, she immigrated to the United States 43 years ago from the Philippines,” said Jones. “She raised my sister and me by herself, and she reminded us every day of our responsibility to give back to a country that had given us so much.” Jones also told the story of her uncle, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy from the Philippines in the 1960s. In spite of the fact that few ratings were open to Filipinos at the time, he went on to become the first Filipino gas turbine electrician in the fleet. Jones cited her uncle’s example as an inspiration for her own service.
Jones, who would be the second LGBTQ Undersecretary of the Air Force if confirmed, discussed how she served during the days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. “Similar to my uncle’s limited career opportunities because of his ethnicity, my experience in the Air Force was hindered by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Yet I, too, remained undeterred because of my desire to serve our country,” Jones told the committee. “That experience cemented my resolve to ensure anyone ready and able to serve can do so to their full potential, and accordingly, our country’s fullest potential.”
In written answers that were submitted ahead of time, Jones laid out what she thought were the greatest challenges she would face if confirmed. The first was modernizing the Air Force’s capabilities in the face of great power competition. While the U.S. military has mainly been focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency for the past couple decades, it is currently in the process of shifting its focus toward China and to a lesser extent Russia. This challenge is particularly pressing for the Air Force, as it has gotten used to fighting adversaries that had little to no ability to contest American dominance in the skies and space. However, Russia and China have developed formidable air forces and air defense of their own, and keeping the United States’ edge will be a significant challenge.
A second and similar priority for Jones is maintaining current capabilities while also investing in future ones. There’s a major debate in the Air Force (and the U.S. military as a whole) over retiring “legacy” systems, which were largely designed and procured during the Cold War, to free up funds to develop new capabilities like artificial intelligence, hypersonics, and drones. The issue with legacy systems like the F-15 and F-16 is that they were designed for a different era and are becoming less relevant as other nation’s militaries advance. Furthermore, legacy systems become more difficult and more expensive to maintain as they age. However, retiring legacy systems means losing capabilities in the short term in the hopes of future capabilities in the long term. There is a risk that contingencies will occur before the future capabilities are ready, if the future capabilities arrive at all (it is not uncommon for defense programs to under-deliver or go over-budget, resulting in them being scaled back or cancelled altogether).
When asked by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who chairs the Armed Services committee, about how she would strike the balance between meeting current demands and investing in the future, Jones said that she would first assess the intent and capabilities of adversaries in order to make that judgment. “Having worked in the Intelligence Community for a long time, we always have to understand the nature of the threat,” she said.
Jones also highlighted the need to tackle personnel-related issues such as extremism and sexual assault. Not only is there a moral imperative to do so, failing to address these issues will hurt readiness and make it difficult for the Air Force to recruit and retain talent. “Great power competition requires we compete for the nation’s top talent,” Jones said in her testimony.
If confirmed, Jones will also help oversee the new Space Force, which she listed as the final significant challenge she expected to face as Undersecretary. “One of my top priorities, if confirmed, would be to review the status of the efforts of the Space Force to reach full operational capability,” said Jones in response to a question from Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a former astronaut. A major problem in space, which Sen. Kelly brought up in his question, is space debris. There is already a large amount of dangerous debris in orbit, and warfare in space, or even the testing of space weapons, would create even more. Jones said that it was important for the Space Force to help shape norms regarding behavior in space in order to mitigate issues like debris.
The Undersecretary of the Air Force is the second highest civilian leadership position in the Department of the Air Force. The job involves overseeing a $170 billion budget and nearly 700,000 personnel. If confirmed, Jones would make history as the first woman of color to fill the role.