History made as new general takes command at Wright-Patterson

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski takes over the Air Force Materiel Command from Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, the first major command change ever between two female 4-star generals.

The Air Force’s newest four-star general marked an historic first Monday when she became the top leader at AFMC and only the second woman to assume the leadership role. Pawlikowski took the reins from Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, the first four-star female general in the Air Force, who capped a 35-year career that began in the first class of women cadets at the Air Force Academy. It was the first time a major command changed from one female 4-star general to another.

AFMC is headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The Air Force’s highest-ranking leaders, from Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, along with hundreds of others witnessed the historic transition of power in a ceremony at the Air Force Institute of Technology.

AFMC challenges

Pawlikowski noted the large challenges she will confront at AFMC at a time of global hot spots that has kept the Air Force engaged from the Pacific to the Middle East and Europe. She emphasized a push to become more innovative and agile, just as AFMC consolidated 12 primary centers into five under Wolfenbarger’s tenure.

“It couldn’t have come at a more important time for our Air Force and our nation faced with challenges such as ISIS, faced with the pivot to the Pacific, and new activities in Europe,” she said during the ceremony.

Pawlikowski becomes the third woman to earn a fourth star in the Air Force.

“That is history in the making, to say the least,” said Patricia M. Murphy, a retired Air Force colonel and is president of the Air Force Women Officers Associated.

“It’s wonderful to see, but the best part of it is to see women recognized for their abilities,” said Murphy, who served 30 years in uniform. ”It’s been a long-time coming but to have one four-star woman to be replaced by another four-star woman is just mind-boggling for us who have been around for a while.”

As AFMC’s leader, Pawlikowski will oversee a $60 billion budget and a workforce of 80,000 civilian and military airmen, with more than 13,000 of those at Wright-Patterson. The command develops, buys and maintains virtually every weapon system in the military branch. Pawlikowski has had a broad range of acquisition, science and technology and space-related experience in key roles, including past commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Welsh, who presided over the ceremony, lauded both generals.

“As you’ve heard, the fact that we’re changing command from one woman to another is interesting and it’s historic but it’s not as cool to me as the fact that we’re changing from one phenomenal leader to another,” he said.

Welsh also noted AFMC’s importance to the Air Force.

“Air power starts with an idea,” he said. “An idea that you then take and turn into reality. You figure out how to buy it, how to build it, how to field it, how to maintain it, how to improve it and eventually you figure out how to replace it. Our Air Force simply does not fly, fight and win without you.

“So if you don’t remember anything else I say today, please remember this: Air power. It’s DNA comes from Dayton.”

Under Pawlikowski’s tour of duty, AFMC will face the challenge of keeping ahead of adversaries technology gains to maintain the edge on the battlefield, delivering weapon systems more quickly and cost effectively, and budget uncertainty, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs.

“There’s almost a new front in warfare and that’s the accounting room,” he said. “It’s not just enough to develop the best weapon systems. They have to be weapon systems we can afford.”

The Air Force will confront a “bow wave” of modernization between now and the late 2020s, one defense analyst said in an email.

“Many of the Air Force’s major platforms are due to be replaced during that time frame, from fighters to bombers to tankers to trainers,” said Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. “The fiscal reality is that it will be hard for the Air Force to execute all of those programs nearly simultaneously, and there is certainly no room for error.”

Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said in an email, Air Force acquisition has become more focused on innovation.

“Pawlikowski is emblematic of a new generation of Air Force leaders not tied to the old way of doing business,” he said. “The Air Force’s acquisition community is becoming a center for innovation, and she is one of the reasons why.”

‘Disneyland of hometowns’

Pawlikowski said the way back to the Miami Valley was like returning to a Disneyland of hometowns because of its cultural diversity and hometown feel. “At Disneyland, you can go to all the different things and you experience things that give you joy and pleasure,” she told reporters afterward, noting her children attended school in the region. “You have so many things that make you feel at home here in Dayton.”

Wolfenbarger, a 1976 Beavercreek High School graduate, was the top leader at AFMC since June 2012. She received the Distinguished Service Medal on Monday and told the audience her heroes were the quiet professionals who carry out their duties as airmen.

Pawlikowski was a pioneer as well as the first woman to graduate from the Air Force ROTC program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and become a second lieutenant.

Susan Feland, founder and president of AcademyWomen, said the historic transition of power was “exciting because it not only marks a change in the military command culture, but also offers evidence of the normalization of women in the highest leadership roles within a traditionally male organization. These women officers are not earning these positions because they are women, but more importantly, because they are visionary leaders with the expertise to navigate the challenges our military faces in modern times. This historic event is also an example of how well our military has fostered and trained an integrated and diverse cadre of leaders who are empowered to tackle ever-changing threats of our nation with innovative and diverse perspectives.”

Mary D. Ross, an Army veteran and national commander of the Women Veterans of America, said the command change was “an absolutely awesome event, especially for those young military women … that they can aspire to be whatever they want to be in their military career.”

“I also think that having women at this level will go a long way to correcting and balancing out some of the issues the military” has dealt with, such as military sexual trauma and discrimination, she said. “You’re not changing the environment of an organization from the bottom,” she said, “you’re changing it from the top.”

Related Stories