Last month, President Biden nominated Air Force veteran and Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones for Under Secretary of the Air Force. As Under Secretary, Jones would be the second highest civilian official in the Air Force, overseeing hundreds of thousands of personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars. Jones would also make history as the first woman of color to serve in the role.
However, Jones must first be confirmed by the Senate before she gets the job. To better understand the confirmation process, the Signal spoke with former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, who served in the Clinton administration, about what Jones can expect.
Like everything in Congress, the confirmation process is a political one and that’s something Jones will have to navigate. “Defense is an important department, so usually there’s a bipartisan sense that those jobs need to be filled,” Caldera told the Signal. “But it can get caught up in politics.”
Caldera said that nominees should be making courtesy calls to the senators that will be voting on their confirmation. Such calls are a chance to establish a rapport, and senators will want to personally evaluate the nominee. These conversations can be tricky though. “Sometimes they’re trying to get a commitment from you about how you will deal with either specific issues,” said Caldera. “There’s a little bit of a dance there, because you don’t want to commit yourself to things that might be inconsistent with the administration’s positions or limit your flexibility in the role. But on the other hand, you want to communicate that you recognize how important the Congress’s role is in oversight, authorization and appropriation.”
Any nominee would have to do this dance, but it will be particularly important for Jones given the Air Force’s economic importance to many constituencies. “The senators are very cognizant of ‘what does the Air Force mean for my state?’” said Caldera. Indeed, the Air Force oversees multi-billion dollar acquisition programs (aircraft are expensive) as well as large bases, both of which create a lot of jobs in a lot of states. “Defense contractors have gotten pretty smart, so they actually build their systems in multiple states to spread out some of those jobs and some of the support for their programs,” noted Caldera.
To get an idea of the money and jobs that are on the line when it comes to the Air Force, one only needs to look to Texas. Two Air Force bases are responsible for 40,000 jobs and more than $8 billion in economic impact in the Lone Star State. Texas is also where the F-35, an ambitious (and controversial) stealth fighter, is manufactured, accounting for 13,000 jobs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The Biden administration’s defense strategy will inevitably run up against these economic concerns, and reconciling the two can be a challenge. For example, Biden discussed looking into a new round of base closures while campaigning in Texas. Such a move could save billions of dollars and the security environment has changed significantly in the fifteen years since the last round of closures, but some in Congress will be unhappy. Jones will have to navigate these kinds of issues.
Will Jones have to worry about significant opposition from the GOP? Partisan politics has gotten worse in recent years, and some Republican Senators have issued a near-blanket opposition to Biden’s nominees. However, Caldera believes that the bipartisan tradition around defense as well as Jones’ qualities as a candidate will prevent her nomination from becoming mired in partisanship. “ I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Gina Ortiz Jones represents an opportunity to embarrass the President,” said Caldera. “It is certainly less true today, but traditionally Defense, Justice and State were treated in a bipartisan manner.”
The major issue that will certainly come up during Jones’ confirmation is the changes that will have to occur for the Air Force, and the US military as a whole, to meet the threats of tomorrow. “The nature of the security threats is changing, and one is what many people have called, the pivot Asi,a that the threats will be these geopolitical great power struggles with China, with North Korea with Russia and less in Iraq/Afghanistan, in the Middle East, ” said Caldera. “The capabilities that our national security joint forces team will need have to change in order to better meet the security threats that are possible in the Pacific Theater.”
Operating in the Pacific presents new challenges for the Air Force. It’s characterized by vast stretches of water, meaning range will be more important for US air power than it has been in previous conflicts where bases close to the frontlines were readily available. China has also invested heavily in ballistic and cruise missiles designed to strike US bases in the region, degrading their ability to generate sorties and destroying aircraft on the ground. To counter this, the Air Force will have to operate in an agile manner from many airfields instead of relying on a handful of large bases that are vulnerable to attack.
In addition to the geopolitical challenges, the Air Force will also have to adapt to technological changes. “There’s also a recognition of the changes in warfare, in the nature of conflict,” said Caldera, citing cyber warfare and drones as examples of new developments with major implications. “It’s not necessarily going to be a dogfight between two fighter jets, it may be lots of drones, trying to take out your airplanes before they ever even left the field.”
There are plenty of examples that highlight the changes in the nature of war Caldera is talking about. The recent Colonial Pipeline hack, which resulted in major disruptions to the East Coast’s fuel supply, is a reminder of the risk from cyber attacks that can have a “kinetic” effect (another way of saying that they cause physical damage). Last year, Azerbaijani drones wreaked havoc on Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, indicating that the future of warfare is unmanned.
Gina Ortiz Jones will have to demonstrate to senators that she is the right person to help lead the Air Force through these major changes, changes that not everyone will agree on. “It’s almost like the judges when they go up for confirmation and are trying to try to not say how they will rule in any specific case,” said Caldera.”You want to communicate ‘I will appreciate your your expertise on these issues and your staff’s expertise, I will be interested in hearing your input, but I will support the President’s program.’ And that’s about the most you can ask for.”