AF secretary on wings of a dream
Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall, the first woman to hold the top civilian post in any of the three military services, calls her job the culmination of "a lifelong dream. It brings many of the threads of my life together."
These include, Widnall said, "a lifelong fascination with airplanes" that begun when she grew up beneath the flight path of McChord Air Force Base in Washington. On top of this, Widnall layered a lifetime of experience as an aeronautical engineer and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Though not a pilot, Widnall has gained real experience since taking over as secretary in 1993 by flying in practically every type of aircraft in the Air Force inventory.
"I've even flown with the Thunderbirds, pulling nine G's," Widnall said. She does this because she "loves to fly" and because it gives her a chance to see the Air Force in action.
When it comes to information technology, Widnall views it the same way she views her job—as something that "threads through everything we do." She believes the use of IT will enhance the service's "global awareness," a key to supporting the Air Force slogan of "Global Reach, Global Power." She enthuses about IT-based systems that offer global views, such as space-based sensors and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft now operating in support of Operation Joint Endeavor. "JSTARS talks to everyone [through Army-operated ground stations]...and makes sure everyone talks to everyone else," she said.
Widnall wants to take advantage of commercial technology and commercial practices when possible and believes the Air Force can do that in its new role as program manager for a global broadcast system, which leverages Direct Broadcast Satellite technology developed by Hughes for the home entertainment market. Information warfare will become increasingly important to the Air Force, Widnall said, from the defensive and offensive perspectives.
"Our whole economy is dependent on information," she said, which argues for a strong defensive capability. Development of offensive information warfare capabilities means that, in the future, the United States might not have to send "as many troops to the field and risk loss of life."
On a personal level, Widnall describes herself as a "Mac fanatic," though that enthusiasm has had to be temporarily reined in because of cost. She was recently hooked up to a secure electronic-mail system that requires the use of a PC Card and, out of economy, opted for an Intel-based platform.
"I could have insisted on using the Mac, and someone probably could have figured out how to [hook the Apple PC to a Fortezza card] at a cost of several million dollars," Widnall said, but frugality led her to having another PC placed on her desk to handle e-mail at a cost far less than customizing her Mac.
Unlike many of the denizens of the Pentagon, who seem to have no life outside work and golf, Widnall brought to her position a zest for the outdoor life in her passions for hiking, biking and climbing. But one adventure Widnall has decided to forgo is parachute jumping.
"I have no desire to jump out of a damn airplane," she said, preferring flights that include "a takeoff and a landing."