Confirmation issues could linger into tenure of new U.S. Air Force secretary

Barrett praised for aerospace experience but also pressed about Trump matters

Newly minted U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett’s first few months on the job could well see her delving into two entirely unrelated issues that arose during her confirmation hearing: the proposed U.S. Space Force and the propriety of service members staying at Trump properties.

The Senate voted 85-7 Wednesday to confirm Barrett as the next Air Force secretary.

Regarding the proposed Space Force, Barrett told senators during her confirmation hearing that “a domain-specific service to organize, train, and equip space forces is overdue,” and she said she supports placing the Space Force under the Air Force. That position reflected President Donald Trump’s February directive for the Defense Department to craft a legislative proposal to that effect, which was a reversal from Trump’s 2018 call for a “separate but equal” Space Force.

Congress appears poised to accept the essence of that legislative proposal, given that language in the Senate and House versions of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would establish the Space Force within the Air Force.

The issue of where the new service should ultimately reside within the bureaucracy might continue to percolate during Barrett’s tenure, however. Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a March op-ed in the Washington Post that the proposal is the “first step toward creating a new, separate military department.”

During Barrett’s confirmation hearing, senators also pressed Barrett about news reports that in March the crew of a C-17 cargo plane stayed at the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland en route to Kuwait.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., challenged her to commit to overhauling Air Force rules to keep service members from spending government funds to stay at properties the president owns.

“The appearance, wholly apart from the reality, of the president profiting from Department of Defense expenditures at properties he owns is absolutely unacceptable,” Blumenthal told Barrett during the hearing.

Barrett said she would not commit to service members never staying at Trump properties, but told Blumenthal she agreed the Air Force should have “rules and regulations that are applied evenly in that [they] are thoughtful and do include appearances.” However, those rules “should not be specific to any particular owner.”

In the end, Blumenthal voted against confirming Barrett, and gave no indication that he would let the topic rest.

Barrett did receive some bipartisan praise during the hearing, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said Barrett’s “unique experiences” in the aerospace world “make her the best choice” for the job. An instrument-rated pilot who has primarily flown the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza A36, Barrett is a former chair of the board of the federally-funded Aerospace Corporation that conducts research and advises the service about space matters.

McSally, a former Air Force A-10 pilot, praised Barrett for supporting the Clinton administration’s 1993 decision to allow women to fly in combat. To advocate for the policy change, Barrett, then a civilian adviser to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, sat in the back seat of an F/A-18 Hornet in 1991 as it landed on the USS Nimitz.

Barrett also has hands-on experience relating to space, having been chosen by space tourism company Space Adventures in 2009 as a backup tourist for the Soyuz TMA-16 launch that carried Canadian businessman Guy Laliberté and two cosmonauts to the International Space Station. Barrett completed training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, but never flew.

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Confirmation issues could linger into tenure of new U.S. Air Force secretary