REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The helicopter in view of James Lackey's AMRDEC office says it all -- where he's been, who he's always wanted to be and where he is headed.
Born in the early 1960s, it was the country's astronauts and race to space that shaped what the Maryland native wanted to be when he grew up. Today, working just down the street from NASA, with the word "aviation" in the very title of his organization, one can easily say Lackey has realized his childhood aspirations.
"I've always set my course of interest in aviation and space, aerospace," Lackey said. "I wanted to be in the aviation/aerospace world. Here I am."
It's a world he will stay in as the new director of the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, after serving as AMRDEC's acting director since January.
"The strategic vision and vast experience he gained in those roles will stand him and the Army in good stead as he sets the direction for AMRDEC to tackle Army and joint air warfare challenges," RDECOM director Dale Ormond wrote in an email to the workforce, announcing Lackey as director. "In his time as acting director of AMRDEC, James has proven to be a strong leader who keeps the needs of the Soldier foremost in his mind."
Lackey is all too familiar with those challenges -- largely, the budget -- having served as the deputy director for Air Warfare in Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics as the Pentagon, prior to coming to Redstone in January 2013 to lead AMRDEC's Engineering Directorate. Lackey also served nearly 25 years at the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Maryland, where he was a strike aircraft flight test project engineer for more than 10 years.
Seeing no relief in sight from sequestration, Lackey's focus is on "recognizing that we're in a budget constrained environment. We need to do things smarter, more economical in approach."
Keeping in touch with his workforce via weekly messages, which he's dubbed the "Director's Corner," Lackey recently laid out his four focus areas: taking care of people, integrated war fighting capabilities and technology transition, affordability and cost consciousness, and strategic alignment and partnering.
"As we head into the future, the Army requirement folks, TRADOC and headquarters, are looking for that quantum leap on capability," Lackey said. "Not to do small incremental upgrades of our existing systems, but within the constraints of our budget, to look at how we can make that leap. The biggest fear is we don't want to find ourselves in an overmatch. That is the whole vision of the Army at the larger levels."
How AMRDEC fits into that vision is clear to Lackey.
"I see AMRDEC as playing a key role in aviation and missiles," Lackey said. "Aviation providing that vertical lift capability, that reach, putting the troops out there, supporting the troops, assault missions and things like that; missiles with precision, long range effects on the missile systems and operation in GPS denied environments. AMRDEC is all there."
With a 50-year legacy of excellence, continuing that storied history and ensuring knowledge is transferred from one generation of workers to the next is of concern to Lackey. About 50 percent of the AMRDEC workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next 10 years.
"How do I balance that workforce knowledge and experience in a declining budget environment, and help make technology and engineering, life cycle support systems happen with excellence? It all kind of ties to the budget. AMRDEC has great credibility and capability, we need to very carefully sustain and maintain that going forward."
In his role as acting AMRDEC director, which he served in from January until receiving news of his permanent status at the end of July, Lackey had the opportunity to fully unravel the complexity of the organization and how it relates to RDECOM and the AMC world. While his roles and responsibilities have changed since coming to the organization more than two and half years ago, one thing has remained constant.
"It's all about the people and the passion," Lackey said of what he enjoys about his work. "Clearly they have a great legacy of where they've been and where they're going."
That destination will largely be guided by Lackey in his role as director. It's a job he looks forward to and calls an "interesting adventure." As for his employees, he challenges them to do two things: keep the focus and add the value.
"Keeping the focus is all about not getting distracted with things happening beyond your control like the budget," Lackey said. "Yes, we're under tight resources right now, but we still have a mission to execute, because it's all about supporting the customer and supporting the war fighter.
"Adding the value means maintaining and sustaining your credibility in excellence. Don't let your skill sets erode. Deliver on time like you promised, deliver with effectiveness and performance. That feeds on one another, and we can get ourselves through this storm that we're going through right now and hopefully persevere."