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Obama to nominate Deborah Lee James as Air Force secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama intends to nominate defense industry executive and former congressional aide Deborah Lee James as secretary of the U.S. Air Force, the White House said on Thursday.

James heads the technology and engineering sector at Science Applications International Corp and has been an executive with the company since 2004, the White House said.

She was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998.

"Deborah's strong record of public service and leadership in the private sector makes her uniquely qualified to be my nominee for Secretary of the Air Force," Obama said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called James "an outstanding leader with deep experience in the Department of Defense, the private sector, and non-profit organizations that support the men and women of our armed services."

If confirmed, James would become the second woman to head the Air Force since its founding in 1947. The first was Sheila Widnall, who served in the job from August 1993 to October 1997. James currently serves on a Pentagon advisory committee on women in the services.

She previously worked for Business Executives for National Security, a non-profit group that advocates for homeland security programs. In addition to 10 years of service on the House Armed Services Committee, James also worked at United Technologies Corp.

Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, said she was encouraged that the White House had quickly chosen a successor for former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley after his departure at the end of June.

"The Air Force has too many senior billets vacant and it's hurting all of the service's priorities, including budget, strategy and readiness," she said.

Eaglen said tighter budgets were squeezing the Air Force nearly as much as the Army, which appears to be bearing the brunt of big budget reductions in recent years.

"The service needs a competent leader who can be confirmed quickly and start throwing their weight around in the Pentagon budget debates," she said.

The Air Force has had a turbulent time in recent years, dealing with an array of acquisition problems and sexual assault scandals.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Jackie Frank and Eric Beech)

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