As the Trump administration shops around for a new Air Force secretary, experts warn it may not be so easy to find top-notch candidates, as many may be reluctant to step up for the job.
In roughly six weeks, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will leave the Pentagon for her new position as president of the University of Texas at El Paso. The UT System Board of Regents confirmed her for the position with a unanimous vote April 2.
Some had high hopes that Wilson, who was confirmed as the 24th Air Force secretary in May 2017, would instead become the next defense secretary. In the meantime, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan awaits President Donald Trump's decision on whether to nominate him for the permanent position, even as the Defense Department Inspector General investigates his ties to Boeing Co.
"I think [SecAF] will be a hard job to fill," said an observer with close ties to the service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Pentagon is finding itself to be "a highly erratic place in which to exert leadership," the observer added.
Since a Shanahan nomination has not been finalized, "not many folks want to sign up without understanding who their boss will be," the observer said.
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Wilson had a unique background before she became Air Force secretary. An Air Force Academy graduate, she earned both master's and doctoral degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England while in the Air Force. After leaving the service in 1989, she served on the National Security Council staff at the White House under President George H.W. Bush and later as a Republican in Congress from 1998 to 2009, representing New Mexico's 1st Congressional District.
Wilson will resign as secretary effective May 31. If a permanent successor is not named soon, it is likely Matthew Donovan, the current under secretary of the Air Force, will temporarily step into the position. Donovan is a former F-15C Eagle pilot.
"This administration has a habit of ignoring advice, but leaving people hanging with the negative after-effects after an ill-advised action fails," the observer said.
There is a laundry list of items potential nominees might not want to deal with, including the Space Force and the future F-15EX proposal. "All [are] examples where Air Force leadership was railroaded," the observer said.
Wilson told reporters last month at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, that the service needs to boost its fighter inventory but had not expected to do so with the F-15EX, confirming speculation that the procurement was forced on the service.
The Space Force, meanwhile, has pinballed its way around the Pentagon only to land back in the hands of the Air Force, as lawmakers originally wanted back in 2017.
That year, Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, and William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, created language in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the service to stand up a "U.S. Space Corps" in an effort to establish a branch within the service in hopes of taking adversarial threats in space more seriously. (That effort hit a roadblock months later and was ultimately dropped, only for the idea to be resurrected later by the president.)
But Wilson's spurning of the Space Corps idea, followed by the president's proposal of a Space Force months later, reportedly made her appear insubordinate.
According to a report from Foreign Policy in October, Trump considered removing Wilson over the service's reluctance to advance his Space Force proposal. He weighed firing her after the midterm elections in 2018, Foreign Policy reported, citing three anonymous sources with knowledge of the matter. But that move never came.
Whoever comes into the job next will surely be plagued by Space Force, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies and the Leon E. Panetta senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"The establishment of Space Force and Space Command is going to be an extensive bureaucratic exercise requiring a great deal of senior leader time," said DeJonge Schulman, who served as the senior adviser to former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and was a special assistant to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"This might be very appealing to a certain kind of leader, particularly one with an interest in space, but it's also going to place that leader between the White House and Congress in a highly stressful way (as Wilson reportedly found)," she told Military.com on Tuesday.
And the strenuous plea for more budget dollars from Congress in coming years isn't necessarily a battle candidates may want to take on, DeJonge Schulman said.
"By setting itself up with the goal of 386 squadrons, the Air Force gave itself a metric that is probably unattainable in today's budget environment … even as it's presently pretty overstretched," she said.
Wilson announced in September that the service wants at least 74 additional squadrons over the next decade. What service brass don't yet know is how they can fill those squadrons.
With these seemingly intractable problems, the next Air Force secretary -- and defense secretary -- could become lame duck officials, argued Rick Berger, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in defense policy and budget appropriations.
There's not much these officials "can achieve in two years," Berger said in an interview. "There's almost no way that you can actually create an effective Pentagon leadership team in the time that's available and, at this point, it's all kind of [working] on autopilot."
That said, to create any kind of leadership foundation, top spots need to be filled, he said.
"And there's only so much you can do until you move someone into the top spot," Berger said, referring to Shanahan and other contenders.
Citing the 386 squadron goal, Berger said the Air Force, like the other services, knows what it wants to achieve to execute the National Defense Strategy, regardless of who may be coming or going at the Pentagon.
DeJonge Schulman said helping design those future strategies may be the only appealing part of the job at the moment.
"These might be appealing challenges for people who understand the Air Force deeply and care about it," she said. "It also might be a deterrent for someone who sees that, in today's political and budget environment, the problems aren't going to get easier."
Although no one has publicly put themselves up for consideration to be the next SecAF, there are viable contenders, even some with formidable Air Force experience.
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, served in the Air Force for 22 years before she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014. She was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December as a permanent replacement for the late Sen. John McCain, but will face Democrat Mark Kelly next year in a bid to keep the seat.
McSally, who became the service's first female pilot to fly in combat, flew the A-10 Thunderbolt and went on to command the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. She was the first woman to command a combat aviation squadron.
She revealed during a congressional hearing March 6 that she had been raped as a junior officer and has since petitioned the Pentagon to improve existing processes to address sexual assault. As a result, the Defense Department this week created a sexual assault task force to study and make recommendations on improving how the armed services handle and prosecute sex crimes.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, is a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. He serves as an RC-26 pilot with the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing and deployed with his unit to the border for the security mission in February.
The congressman said his two-week deployment opened his eyes to what the border mission means to the U.S., adding that more resources should be devoted to the effort. After his deployment, Kinzinger said he backed Trump's national emergency declaration over border security, citing the influx of migrants as well as the flow of illegal drugs.
Kinzinger was commissioned in the Air Force in 2003, according to Air Force Magazine. He flew KC-135 Stratotankers before switching to the RC-26 spy plane, and deployed several times for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He met with Trump on March 6, per the White House schedule.
"The Congressman is focused on his current job, but understands the importance of this position, especially at this moment in time," staff with Kinzinger's office said in a statement. "And he trusts that the President will pick the best person for the job."
Representatives for McSally did not respond to Military.com by press time.
Prior to his congressional service, Bacon commanded the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, between 2011 and 2012. He specialized in electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, flying the EC-130H Compass Call, RC-135 S/V/W reconnaissance variants, and the Navy's E-6 Mercury airborne command-and-control aircraft, according to his Air Force biography. Before retiring in 2014, he was the director of ISR strategy for the service at the Pentagon.
Bacon hasn't expressed immediate interest in the Air Force secretary position.
"The congressman loves representing the Second District of Nebraska, and he has not disclosed ... any discussions on the topic," Danielle Jensen, Bacon's communications director, told Military.com on Wednesday. "He respects Secretary Wilson and has confidence the president will nominate a trusted leader as a replacement."
If Trump doesn't seek out candidates, or if no one comes forward, the easy choice may already be there, the observer said.
"[My] vote is that Matt Donovan is the guy," the observer said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with comment from Rep. Adam Kinzinger's office.