The top general at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will retire later this year as head of the Air Force Materiel Command, the largest employer at Wright-Patterson.
Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, the first female four-star general in the Air Force and a 1976 Beavercreek High School graduate, oversees the sprawling command headquartered at Wright-Patterson in a time of sharp defense budget cuts under sequestration and a reorganization that consolidated 12 centers into five and cut 1,000 management positions.
Lt. Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, a three-star general and former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson, has been nominated to become the next AFMC leader and gain a fourth star. Today, she serves as the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition at the Pentagon, a job Wolfenbarger once held.
Wolfenbarger, who earned her fourth star and became AFMC commander in June 2012, was cited among those who know her as a gender-barrier breaking role model and a leader who brought major changes at the command with a workforce of 80,000 military and civilian employees, about 13,400 at Wright-Patterson alone. The command manages a budget of nearly $60 billion which would put it among the largest U.S. companies if it were privately held.
C.D. Moore, an Air Force Academy classmate of Wolfenbarger’s and who retired last year as a three-star general at Wright-Patterson, said Wolfenbarger will be remembered most for her leadership in the reorganization. While at the Pentagon, she spearheaded the changes through the political process and later led the consolidation as AFMC commander.
“There’s no doubt that she’ll be remembered for her vision in seeing that through,” said Moore, Dayton Aerospace, Inc., executive vice president and former commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.
“As the Air Force has been going through (its) internal process of restructuring, (Wolfenbarger’s) been a staunch supporter of this command and the significance it plays,” said Maurice McDonald, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president of aerospace and defense.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced Friday at an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Fla., Wolfenbarger will retire. Wolfenbarger was traveling Friday and not available for comment, said Ron Fry, AFMC spokesman at Wright-Patterson.
The Senate must approve Pawlikowski’s nomination before she becomes the next commander. A date for the transition has not been announced, Fry said.
Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, has followed the career of Pawlikowski for years.
“Gen. Pawlikowski is considered something of a star in the Air Force,” he said. “A really forceful leader and a very effective manager so AFMC will be in good hands. She seems to be one of the top acquisition experts and weapons buyers in the Pentagon.”
Facing spending caps and a tenuous future of systems such as a new aircraft to train jet pilots and a replacement for airborne radar planes, the new commander “must be a person who can tell the story how the fleet is getting old and they have to modernize at a more vigorous pace,” Thompson said.
“If she and the rest of the Air Force leadership can’t tell a more convincing story about the need to modernize the fleet than the Air Force is going to keep hemorrhaging capability,” he said.
Todd Harrison, a defense fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., said in an email Pawlikowski “is an expert on military space systems and an excellent choice to lead AFMC.”
‘Not a surprise’
Wolfenbarger, the daughter of an Air Force officer, has broken barriers from the first day of her military career. In 1976, she entered the Air Force Academy with the first class of women to be accepted at the Colorado Springs, Colo., school. She was one of nearly 100 women to graduate in 1980.
Moore, who graduated the same year with the first gender-mixed class of male and female cadets, said Wolfenbarger was a “very, very bright” engineering student. After her academy education, she earned two master’s degrees, including one in astronautics and aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s not a surprise to see her rise through the ranks and do as well as she did,” he said Friday.
M.J. Kellenbence, 56, of Colorado Springs and one of the women who graduated alongside Wolfenbarger, said four female cadets in the class of 1980 reached the ranks of general officers.
“We’ve got an ’80s ladies website and we all follow what our classmates are doing,” she said Friday. Wolfenbarger’s history-making position “makes us look good and we’re just proud of what she’s done.”
Deborah Gross, executive director of the Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association, said Wolfenbarger is “very humble,very soft spoken, but clearly a decision maker. I think she’s just the most phenomenal role model for young women but especially in this community being a Beavercreek High School graduate.”
Among other accolades, Beavercreek High School named its campus after Wolfenbarger in 2013.
Once AFMC vice commander, Wolfenbarger has spent more than two decades in different jobs at Wright-Patterson. She had had key roles in the development of the F-22 Raptor fighter, the bat-winged B-2 Spirit bomber and C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet.
“General Wolfenbarger’s leadership has been critical to protecting and strengthening the world-class Air Force Materiel Command at Wright Patterson Air Force Base,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner. R-Dayton, said in a statement. Turner is chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.