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Highway to the danger zone? Obama picks non-pilot to head Air Force in Pacific

Promotion sought in diversity drive

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2014

The White House has picked the first female general to head the Air Force in the Pacific, which will make her the first non-pilot to command air power in such a large theater of operation.

The Pentagon announced this week that Air Force Lt. Gen. Lori J. Robinson has been nominated for promotion to four-star general and as commander of Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force component of U.S. Pacific Command. It is a major combatant command whose air, ground and naval forces have broad responsibility for security in the Asia-Pacific region. Her nomination was sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Officials said pilots historically have commanded Air Force war-fighting components for the Pacific and for U.S. Air Forces Europe; Air Forces Central, which covers the Middle East and Afghanistan; and the 1st Air Force, which is part of Northern Command and protects U.S. skies.

Gen. Robinson is not a career pilot. Her military profession is air battle manager. She has served aboard the Air Force's surveillance aircraft, the E-3 AWACs and E-8 JSTARS, and she was nominated for a promotion amid a drive for more diversity in the Pentagon.

A retired pilot said there is a reason the Air Force historically has put a pilot in charge of large combatant command Air Forces.

"It is because you make operational decisions that require the understanding of what you are going to ask pilots to execute in combat where the wrong decisions mean the difference between life and death," the retired pilot said. "Now her vice commander and director of operations will be rated fighter pilots, but still she makes the decisions."

Rose Richeson, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said, "The Air Force operates across three domains: air, space and cyberspace and provides capability and capacity in five core mission areas: Air and Space Superiority, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Rapid Global Mobility, Global Strike and Command and Control. Lt. Gen. Robinson has demonstrated knowledge and experience across the entire spectrum of these mission areas as well as recent operational application supporting coalition activities for United States Central Command."

Gen. Robinson is now vice commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, which oversees the service's fleet of bombers and fighters, and maintains readiness.

In the Pacific, she is replacing Gen. Herbert Carlisle, a career F-15 pilot who is assuming leadership of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

An Air Combat Command spokesman said career air battle managers, such as Gen. Robinson, "principally provide command and control in the battle space and aid combat aircraft in finding, identifying and engaging their targets. They provide pilots with a tactical picture, which increases their capability by enhancing situational awareness. ABMs also provide early warning for inbound enemy aircraft and direct friendly assets to intercept them."

The Air Combat Command history office and Air Force representatives said all previous Air Force combatant commanders in active large theaters of operation — the Pacific, Europe and Central Command — have been combat pilots.

However, Gen. Robinson would not be the first female officer to command an Air Force component. From 2010 to 2012, Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, a career transport pilot, commanded the 17th Air Force, which was then the Air Force component for Africa Command. She led the air campaign against Libya in 2011.

The 17th was disbanded in 2012. Today, a career F-15 pilot commands Air Forces Europe and Africa.

A career navigator heads U.S. Special Operations Command Air Forces. That component operates AC-130 gunships, drones, transports and other aircraft, but does not conduct air campaigns.

Gen. Robinson was nominated amid a diversity push by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a general focus on women's issues by the White House. Mr. Hagel has vowed to stamp out sexual assaults in the military and said he is open to studying whether transgender people are permitted to serve.

The military also is preparing to put women in direct land combat units.

The Navy promoted its first woman this month to four-star rank: Adm. Michelle J. Howard, a surface warship commander, to vice chief of naval operations, the Navy's second-ranking officer.

The Air Force promoted its first woman to four-star rank in 2012, when Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger took over Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The Army's first female four-star general, Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody, has retired.

To observers, the twin moves to promote a woman to vice chief of naval operations and to place a woman in charge of a major combatant command Air Force means that female officers are destined to be elevated to the six-member Joint Chiefs of Staff, which comprises the four service chiefs, a chairman and a vice chairman.

Women make up 14.5 percent of the active force but only a small percentage of combat pilots, 21 years after the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in those jobs.

Of 3,714 Air Force fighter and bomber pilots last year, 85 — or about 2 percent — were women at the rank of lieutenant colonel and below.

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