By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday kicked off a drive to attract and retain more women and minorities, including a push to increase the number of female officers and pilots.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James announced nine measures that she said were critical to ensuring the Air Force's success, such as a web-based mentoring system, longer deferrals for deployments after pregnancy, and a 30-percent target for the percentage of females in the officer applicant pool, up from 25 percent.
"This is not just about how we look. It’s about our readiness. It’s about our capabilities today and for the future. It’s about how we are going to perform as an Air Force ... in this very uncertain geopolitical environment," James told a conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security.
Women make up 18.9 percent of the Air Force, the highest rate among the military services, but they leave the service during the mid-career phase at twice the rate of men, she said. Women and minorities are also underrepresented in certain job categories, such as pilots, she said.
To improve retention, the Air Force plans to expand a new program that allows top-performers to take one to three years off for personal or professional reasons without losing their "place in line" for future promotions, James said.
All four military services have focused in recent years on expanding the number of women and minorities in their ranks, combating sexual assault, and retaining talented young people.
James noted that minorities accounted for the largest number of births in the United States for the first time in 2012, and the trend would continue.
"We need the institutional ability to adapt to this rapid pace of change and to keep ... ahead," she said.
Actions were needed now, given the long time it takes to train a future Air Force leader, James said, noting that a woman who joined the service in 2016 would not be eligible for promotion as a one-star general until 2039.
The Air Force is changing the current process for obtaining waivers from specific height requirements for pilots, a move that James said would give 900 more women the opportunity to compete for those coveted spots over the next five years.
The service will also make it a prerequisite for promotion that future leaders can show they have demonstrated a commitment to diversity and inclusion, James said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Andrew Hay)