RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to hear now from the woman charged with streamlining the Pentagon's roughly $700 billion annual budget.
CHRISTINE FOX: We have to curb the growth of the compensation of our force. It's grown 40 percent above inflation over the last decade. And it's fully half of our budget. So, we have to slow the growth.
MARTIN: Christine Fox was recently tapped as the acting deputy secretary of defense, the number two at the Pentagon. Besides changing the Pentagon's retirement and compensation system, Fox says the U.S. military is going to have to get smaller.
FOX: If we're looking a future that is roughly minus $50 billion a year, the sequester-level kinds of reductions to the defense budget, all aspects of our force have to get smaller. Every service needs to be what we call in balance. So, the size is one piece of that. But another piece is their ability to prepare. And we call that readiness around here, which basically means suppose you're about to have your teenage son drive a car from here to Ohio in the winter. Well, you'd like him to know how to drive. You'd like to know that the car has been tuned up so it's not going to break down along the way. It's the same thing for flying planes or operating ships. And so ultimately, all the services need to find the level where they need to keep that balance. And that's what we're trying to figure out right now.
MARTIN: I'd like to turn the conversation in a more personal direction, if I may. In my experience, women who rise to positions of power and influence rarely like to talk about that fact; how they perceive that in their role as a kind of pioneer. It's not going to stop me to ask you about that.
FOX: Well, I'm not going to break the trend though.
MARTIN: Because even if, only in an acting capacity, you are the only woman to ever serve at this level of leadership at the Pentagon, which is a big deal.
FOX: It is a big deal.
MARTIN: You've been a civilian woman working in the military for a long time - 30 years...
FOX: Over, a little.
MARTIN: ...plus. I wonder if you wouldn't mind painting a picture for us though of what it was like culturally for you when you started out.
FOX: Yes. It's kind of simple. My father was a nuclear engineer and I'm an only child. And I never remember ever having a conversation with my father where the conversation started with, well, you're a girl, but... Good. It was just, well, what do you want to do? You want to major in math? If you're good at it, you should. You can do the math, you can do anything. So, when I was starting out, I actually had that attitude. I still have that attitude. Was it a different time? Of course it was. Were things done and said around me that would not be acceptable today? Of course, there were. Were they OK now? But what I found is if I was capable and I could make a contribution and I approached it as I want to help solve a problem and help you be better, very quickly, in my experience, the gender stuff just sort of fell away.
MARTIN: So, you know it's coming, but I do have to mention that in the '80s, you were actually the inspiration, the real-life inspiration for Kelly McGillis' character in the movie "Top Gun." How did you feel about that when that happened and then afterwards? Because her character wasn't exactly someone who tried to downplay her femininity or her gender. She was a highly sexualized character.
FOX: She was. Yeah. So, the truth is I had no choice in it and I wasn't thrilled. That's the truth. The producers were looking for some way to cast a female role that both Kelly McGillis would accept and the admiral I worked for, Admiral Cassidy, would accept. So, aerobics instructor, she kicked out; naval officer, he kicked out. And he said I really don't know what your problem is. I've got the perfect solution. And I walked in and they're talking and they look over and they say, oh, that's perfect. OK, great.
MARTIN: Did you have much input into the character?
FOX: Just a little bit. I did spend a day with Kelly McGillis and I showed her kind of how I worked and what I did and so forth. But, you know, they really sensationalized the position and it was all really about the romance, which was, you know, different, obviously, than what I was doing there. And I do remember being called over to the set. And she stomped up to me and stuck her leg out. And she was wearing black seam stockings for the initial scene where she walks in. There's a shot of her legs...
MARTIN: Oh, yeah. I know that scene
FOX: ...in the blacked seam stockings, right? And she said I'll be you would never wear these to work here. And I looked at her. I said, you know, black seam stockings is not part of my daily attire. You're right. And she looked at them on the set. She said, see? I told you. And they all said, too bad. That was that. And...
MARTIN: Oh, she was on your side.
FOX: She was on my side.
MARTIN: Interesting. I want to ask you about something else. The Defense Authorization Bill just recently passed has a provision meant to strengthen the protections for victims of sexual assault. President Obama just announced a yearlong review of the issue of military sexual assault. You've been working with the military for a long time. What is your opinion about this? Has the military been doing enough to address this problem over the years?
FOX: Yeah. Well, sexual assault is, obviously, egregious and complex problem. I learned when I was first in the Pentagon working for Secretary Gates that if you really want to tackle a very, very tough thing in this behemoth organization, it takes the secretary to take it on personally. Secretary Hagel has done that with sexual assault. He owns this problem. He has required all kinds of things of the force. The service chiefs are doing the same thing. They see it, they're concerned about it and they're owning the problem.
MARTIN: Are they?
FOX: They are. These service chiefs, service leadership, I've known them most of them since they were young officers, right? And they've got to figure out how to solve it in their service if they want to. Now, can I give you the three things they should be doing that they're not? No, I wish I could, because if I could they'd do them. But I'm confident that we're going to keep tackling it until we find those things and we do them.
MARTIN: Christine Fox. She is the acting deputy secretary of defense. We spoke with her at the Pentagon. Thank you so much for talking with us.
FOX: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.