Unleashing Blue Yonder

By Michael Richman
Unleashing Blue Yonder

James Roche speaks fatalistically about his abnormal major when he was at Illinois Institute of Technology, where he majored in English Literature from 1957 to 1960. Although his Pi Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers and almost everyone else studied engineering, he recalls how his presence among flocks of prospective engineers was personally advantageous.


It shaped his mind to think systematically and helped prepare him for the distinguished position he holds today: Secretary of the U.S. Air Force.

“I was very comfortable with the engineering students’ language, and I understood how to work well with technical people,” as compared to being in a school filled with liberal arts types. “I was in a world where technical things were considered important. I’ve never lost that.”

Roche, 61, now deploys his technological shrewdness at the Pentagon, where colleagues praise him as an innovator who is eager to experiment. That’s a must for the Air Force, which no longer is limited to conventional means such as long-range bombers and fighter jets, but has experienced a shift toward high-tech weapons such as unmanned spy planes, hypersonic missiles and ultra-sophisticated satellites in space. Roche hopes such gadgetry will combine to create what he calls an “asymmetrical advantage” for America’s air and space power in the 21st century.

A Chicago native, Roche became Air Force secretary in June 2001 after a fellow Chicagoan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, recommended him to President Bush for the position. Roche is responsible for organizing, training, equipping and supporting the welfare of nearly 370,000 men and women on active duty; 180,000 members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve; and 160,000 civilian employees. He handles an annual budget of about $68 billion.

How would he describe his first year-and-a-half on the job?

“It’s been jam-packed,” he said emphatically. “We’ve packed about three years of life into one year. The hours are long, and the intensity is high—the war contributed to that. We’re also trying to recover from a period when very few aircraft were built. The Air Force is aging, so we’re trying to change how some people think about strategy for the Air Force, to make sure people are well prepared for combat, to be more efficient, and to deal with a defense industrial base that’s dramatically consolidated.”

The “war” is America’s war on terrorism. It was provoked by Islamic radicalism, a subject Roche was discussing with Texas Congressman Sam Johnson, a decorated Air Force pilot and Vietnam War POW, when the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Once the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper, knowing terrorists were perpetrating an attack, grabbed phones in the secretary’s office to participate in a conference call with the Air Force Information Warfare Center at the Pentagon. They had no idea a third hijacked airliner was heading toward their side of the Pentagon, where the offices of Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also located. The terrorists piloting American Airlines Flight 77 missed their target before veering around and careening into the opposite side of the mammoth, fortress-like structure, killing 190 people.

His life spared, Roche proceeded to become a chief architect of America’s rout of the Taliban regime—which harbored Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network that carried out the September 11 attack—in Afghanistan. He helped organize a near-perfect bombing campaign in which the Air Force flooded the skies with spy planes, drones, satellites and radar sensors transmitting real-time images to headquarters and bomber pilots seeking targets. The landscape below was so well-mapped that the enemy found it impossible to hide, even at night.

Meanwhile, the secretary has been traversing the globe to visit U.S. military bases. His destinations have included sites in Europe, the Pacific, and those closer to America’s military confrontation in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan. He defines the spirit and morale of U.S. military personnel to be “quite remarkable,” noting that they carry out their duties in a professional manner.

“There’s much more a sense of purpose than emotionalism,” he said. “You’ll see their determination now and then on the notes they’ll write on bombs, but it’s very pointed. There’s a lot of empathy for the New York fire and police departments, and for their colleagues here at the Pentagon who were killed. But it’s a cold, deliberate professionalism that’s applied. Nobody’s crazy. We haven’t had any cowboys in the air, for instance.”

The air is not the domain where Roche applied his first professional stamp. After attending IIT on a Navy scholarship, serving as an ROTC midshipman and graduating in 1960, he launched a 23-year career in the U.S. Navy. As a naval officer, his roles included principal deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; senior professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and assistant director for the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment. As commander of the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Buchanan, he received the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy for leading the Navy’s most improved combat unit in the Pacific in 1974. He retired as a captain in 1983.

Roche, who lives near the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, Diane Lee Roche, denies being a Navy man at heart.

“I’m an American military officer first and foremost,” he said. “I was a Naval officer, and I had a wonderful career, and in the course of that I learned about the Air Force and came to admire a lot about it. I felt I had certain talents that, when combined with the talents of my Air Force colleagues, could help the Air Force as an institution to be a premier military force in the 21st century.”

Roche’s knowledge of the Air Force is also rooted in his 17 years of experience in executive roles at California-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which specializes in air defense systems. He labored to devise and refine top-secret military technology, including the B-2, or “Stealth,” bomber. Most recently, he served for five years as head of the company’s Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector in Baltimore.

His experiences at Northrop brought him in contact with such defense industry luminaries as Gordon England, a long-time executive with Texas-based General Dynamics Corp. England, now the Secretary of the Navy, offers only laudatory words for his Pentagon colleague.

“Jim Roche is a good friend who has given a lifetime of service to our nation,” England said. “As a Naval aviator, congressional staffer, businessman and now, as the leader of the U.S. Air Force, his vision embraces the new technologies and methods that will keep America’s armed forces the best in the world. Jim’s talent for innovation is shaping the Air Force of the 21st century into a more efficient and effective force. Our nation is blessed to have a person of his skill, intelligence and sense of service working for America.”