OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. —
Doctor Emmett Brown and Marty McFly journeyed “Back to the Future” in June 1985, just months before that, a newly minted college graduate entered the doors of Strategic Air Command (SAC) for the first time; the first steps of a career that would span three decades.
In the fall of 1985, Kerry Kelley reported for her first day of work as an operations research analyst with SAC. She described it as an exciting time. The pursuit of higher education brought her from Illinois to Nebraska, where she earned her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University in mathematics and then a master’s degree from Northwestern University in operations research.
She couldn’t predict those first steps would be a journey of 32 years, culminating with her as a senior leader in the world’s most powerful global warfighting command.
“I wanted to be able to use my operations research degree,” said Kelley. “I didn’t know too much about SAC’s missions.” She recalled asking someone, “What’s the triad?”
Kelley would learn very quickly how important those missions, and her role in the command, were in the bi-polar environment of the Cold War.
As a civilian coming into a military organization, she viewed the challenges in front of her as great learning opportunities. As an operations research analyst in the SAC research and analysis (NR) directorate, she played a big part in preparing studies for procurement of aircraft including the B-2 strategic bomber. The B-2 marked a revolutionary advancement in technology, as a multi-role bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. Its stealth features give it the unique ability to penetrate an enemy’s most advanced defenses.
“These types of analyses led me toward the world of arms control, including Nuclear Posture Reviews and work on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II and New START,” said Kelley.
Her research on budget, arms control and stability analysis regarding military effectiveness were important as SAC and Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff were replaced by a new unified combatant command, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) in 1992. This new command was responsible for all nuclear forces, including the strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines that comprise the nuclear triad.
“Under the first Bush administration, she was involved in the 1992 nuclear restructuring of this nation,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of USSTRATCOM. “She provided the analysis that showed the way for our future weapons construct under the new Strategic Command and the structure after the Cold War.”
She headed to the plans and budget directorate (J5), after the 1992 restructuring from Strategic Air Command to USSTRATCOM,
“After a couple of years with the J5, I moved to the J8, experimentation and missile defense directorate,” said Kelley.
In 2002, Kelley again witnessed another restructuring of USSTRATCOM. During this time, she performed many budget and military effectiveness analyses for arms reduction.
During the tenure of U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former USSTRATCOM commander, Kelley recalled a challenging task of completing a cruise missile reduction study in just 90 days.
“I was happy to be a part of studies that make a difference,” said Kelley. “When I look back, I ask myself, ‘did I do something positive – is something good going to come out of it?’ – it’s good job fulfillment, and purpose, and knowing that you are doing it for national security.”
At the time, there weren’t too many women in her field of expertise.
She said that starting out as a woman in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields could be challenging at times, citing a friend asking if she was the only female in a room full of men during meetings.
“I guess sometimes I was the only woman in the room,” Kelley said after a moment of reflection. “Eventually, you just get to the point where we are all the same, we are all here for the same goal or mission. Eventually, you just shed that whole, ‘Oh, I’m different’ sort of mentality.”
While she acknowledged that careers in STEM and strategic deterrence are typically male-dominated, Kelley said there have been more and more women entering these types of career fields and advancing to leadership positions.
She credited those women, as well as others who mentored her, for inspiring her to accomplish her own ambitions.
“When you have leaders that you may not directly work for, but they are the ones helping you, for example arms control, and they appreciate analysis – those were the people that I really appreciated,” said Kelley.
In 2007, Kelley accepted a position to the highest civilian rank within the U.S. government — senior executive service, or SES.
She explained that as an SES, an individual could be a leader over many different organizations. One of the most challenging moments Kelley recalled was her move in 2010 from the J8 to being the director of command and control communications cyber/computer (C4) systems (J6). In that position, she also served as chief information officer (CIO) and director, Joint Cyber Center, for USSTRATCOM.
“I am not a career IT person, but my experience in command and control modernization, especially the nuclear command and control modernization, allowed me to fulfill the J6 position,” said Kelley.
The J6 director is responsible for providing and assuring global-integrated C4 systems capabilities for the full spectrum of assigned missions. These systems support national-level decision making to conduct nuclear, space and cyberspace operations.
After 32 years of service at Offutt Air Force Base – with both SAC and USSTRATCOM, Kelley will retire at the end of March, Women’s History Month. Kelley’s experience and expertise helped shape todays USSTRATCOM.
Hyten said her dedication and selfless service will not be forgotten, and her legacy at USSTRATCOM will be motivation for others to challenge themselves to succeed.
When asked what she hopes her employees take away from her leadership, she responded with, a team approach.
“It’s not about an individual – it’s about the good of the organization,” Kelley said. “Be collaborative, be a team player, have the integrity to speak up if something doesn’t seem right.”
She had never anticipated that a job in national security, that began more than three decades ago in a bi-polar world, would come to a close with her leading a world-class team confronting multi-domain, multi-polar problems.
As the character, Doc Brown said back in 1985, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”
As for Kelley’s future, she contemplates her options.
“I am excited about retirement,” Kelley said. “Everyone offers something you can learn, and we’ll see where that takes me.”
USSTRATCOM has global responsibilities assigned through the Unified Command Plan that include strategic deterrence, nuclear operations, space operations, cyberspace operations, joint electromagnetic spectrum operations, global strike, missile defense, and analysis and targeting.
For more information, contact the USSTRATCOM Public Affairs Office at 402-294-4130 or USSTRATCOMPA@mail.mil or visit www.stratcom.mil.