Senate Confirms Barrett as Next Air Force Secretary

Secretary of the Air Force Nominee Barbara Barrett testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as a part of the confirmation process, on Sept 12, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark.

The Senate on Oct. 16 voted 85-7 to confirm Barbara Barrett as the Air Force’s new secretary, about five months since the service’s last permanent secretary left the post.

She will take over as the Air Force’s top civilian in the midst of a drastic rethinking of how space assets fit in with the rest of the military, and as the service figures out its place and its investments in the digital age—faced with aging aircraft, a pilot shortage, and an evolving relationship with the private sector.

“I can think of no position that offers more excitement, challenge, and meaning than the Secretary of the Air Force,” Barrett said in a service release after the vote. “Our Air Force is the best in the world because of extraordinary airmen and civilians with whom I am now proud to serve.”

The service did not answer Oct. 16 when Acting SECAF Matt Donovan will hand off the job.

Barrett plans to divest her interests in more than a dozen companies and other entities within the next 90 days, including stock in defense giant Raytheon and Intel Corp.

That full list includes: CenturyLink, Intel, Raytheon, Comcast, Danaher, DXC Technology, Illinois Tool Works, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Stanley Black & Decker, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Xcel Energy, PerkinElmer, the Franklin Utilities fund and the IShares US Utilities fund, according to documents posted by the US Office of Government Ethics.

Upon confirmation, Barrett said she would resign from her posts at the nonprofit think tank RAND Corp., the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, and the Smithsonian Institution.

She will also leave her various seats at the Greater Ravalli Foundation, an organization supporting public education in southwest Montana; the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which advocates for medical research; the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which offers financial support and other services to young people with financial hardship; and her family’s own Craig and Barbara Barrett Foundation, a private philanthropic venture.

Barrett, a former member and chairman of Aerospace Corp.’s board of trustees, left the federally funded research and development center in December 2018. She promises not to be involved with matters involving those myriad organizations for one year after she resigns from each.

The Barretts also own Triple Creek Ranch in Montana, a luxury Old West-style resort that lets guests pan for sapphires and has been ranked among the world’s best hotels, and nearby CB Ranch, a working cattle and bison ranch.

“I do not hold a position with either of these entities,” Barrett wrote. “I will continue to have a financial interest in these entities, but I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of either entity, unless I first obtain a written waiver.”

The Barretts listed 72 side assets and sources of income, ranging from investments in real estate to data mobility, fine jewels, and banks. She plans to stay on as a trustee of two family trusts, and will not receive fees for any trustee services she provides while she is SECAF.

“You have advised me that, at this time, I do not need to divest my interests in the Tallwave Commercialization Fund and the SVG Thrive Fund,” Barrett wrote of the technology, agriculture, and food investment groups. “Because the likelihood that my duties will involve particular matters affecting these entities or their investments is remote, the agency has determined that it is not necessary at this time for me to divest.”

Barrett, of Arizona, is a frequent political donor who this year has given money to several Republican senators across the country as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She formerly served as deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and US ambassador to Finland under the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, and is a trained pilot and spaceflight participant.

Lawmakers largely appeared pleased by her performance during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September, though some questions arose about whether airmen should stay at properties owned by President Donald Trump.

She told senators that her priorities include ensuring military space deterrence, building a warfighting ethos for a potential Space Force, growing and retaining USAF cyber operators, improving airmens’ work-life balance, and keeping airmen and their families healthy and safe, among others.

Barrett will head into the new job in the midst of a continuing budget resolution that caps the federal government at 2019 spending levels, and as the Pentagon prepares its 2021 funding request. She is also the latest civilian leader to be confirmed in a tumultuous year of defense staff turnover.

“We need good people, informed people, highly qualified people to serve at the highest levels of our military, civilian and uniform, and I believe Ambassador Barrett is certainly one of those individuals,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote.

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden (Ore.), Tina Smith (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Ed Markey (Mass.) voted against Barrett.