USAF Secy-designate Wilson pushes education, military connection

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Senate panel gives thumbs up to Trump's Air Force nominee

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Air Force could have another female in charge if President Donald Trump's secretary nominee gets confirmed.

The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology president, Dr. Heather Wilson, is going through the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate.

"If confirmed I intend to focus on readiness, modernization, quality of command, and research and development for the future," Wilson said at her hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

Wilson is used to breaking barriers. In 1998, she became the first female military veteran elected to a full term in Congress.

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Now, Wilson is facing some tough questions about the future of the Air Force - questions on how to counter countries like China who invest heavily in military technology.

"They are developing stealth capabilities and I don't see how we can stop modernizing and expect to win a near-pier fight. I would rather have that fight unfair and on our side," Wilson said.

As a university president, Wilson says her education connection will play a role in the military's future. She sees a greater need for cooperation between colleges and the military for research.

There was support for that cooperation from South Dakota's own U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, both of whom introduced Wilson at Thursday's hearing.

"She understands the importance of not only rising and meeting the challenges of the day, but look ahead and defeat the threats of tomorrow," Thune said.

"People who work with her in South Dakota describe her as a great manager and an inspiring leader," Rounds said.

When pressed about past statements, Wilson told the SASC that she values diversity, saying she tolerates, but does not approve of gay and lesbian individuals.

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"It is not my intention to change any of the policies currently in place with respect to sexual orientation," she said.

During the hearing, there were probes for possible conflict of interests, including stocks Wilson owns in 16 defense contractor companies. Wilson says she would divest those stocks if confirmed.

She also says she would step down as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Trump's pick for both the secretary of U.S. Army and U.S. Navy withdrew their names because of conflict of interest issues, but this nomination seems to be moving forward.

Story by NBC News Correspondent Edward Lawrence

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