Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson Becomes First Woman To Lead Northern Command in Colorado

Photo: Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson, NORAD (AP)
Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson speaks during the change of command ceremony, at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo., Friday, May 13, 2016.

Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson on Friday became the first woman to lead a top-tier U.S. warfighting command when she took over as leader of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command in Colorado.

Robinson - one of just two female four-star generals in the Air Force - was installed during a ceremony attended by Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; and Canadian minister of defense Harjit Sajjan.

During the ceremony at a hangar at Peterson Air Force Base, Carter praised Robinson as a strategic thinker capable of making split-second, life-and-death decisions.

He also said Robinson and her husband, David Robinson, a retired two-star general, understand the difficulties military families face, alluding to the death of David Robinson's daughter, 2nd Lt. Taryn Ashley Robinson, following a pilot training accident.

She was fatally injured in a crash months after graduating from the Air Force Academy. She died in January 2006, four weeks before her 23rd birthday.

"To any family that has experienced loss, their own strength and leadership can be an inspiration," Carter said.

Photo: Robinson, Air Force, NORAD
Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson is the first woman to lead a top-tier U.S. warfighting command.

None of the officials mentioned during the ceremony that Robinson is the first woman to lead a U.S. combatant command. Instead, the focus was her abilities and the service of her predecessor, Admiral William Gortney.

People who know Robinson describe her as the personification of a new generation of leaders, someone who understands that the Air Force has a broad role in space, cyber security and drones, not just flying and fighting.

That's what sets Robinson apart, not her gender, said Maria Carl, a retired Air Force colonel who knows her.

"Gen. Robinson reflects that change as much as anything else," said Carl, who serves on the Military Affairs Council of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce.

Carl didn't serve under Robinson but worked with her in her Chamber of Commerce role, when the general headed the Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

"She has an ability to take all the different pieces of the picture and pull it together strategically," Carl said.

Air Force Academy Superintendent Michelle Johnson, a three-star general and the first woman to head the school, said Robinson is an inspiration to female cadets at the academy.

"They appreciate seeing somebody that they can aspire to," Johnson said after the ceremony that included a 19-gun salute from cannons outside the hangar.

Robinson's family has deep roots in the Air Force. Her husband was a pilot in the Thunderbirds demonstration team. Her father, George Howard of Jackson, New Hampshire, was a 30-year Air Force veteran and a pilot in the Vietnam War.

"I have looked up to my father my entire life," Robinson told senators at a confirmation hearing involving her new job last month. He accompanied her to the hearing.

One of her new commands, the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, is a joint U.S.-Canada operation that defends the skies over both nations and monitors sea approaches. It's best known for its Cold War-era control room deep inside Cheyenne Mountain - now used only as a backup - and for its wildly popular NORAD Tracks Santa operation on Christmas Eve, fielding calls from children asking for Santa's whereabouts.

Her other command, Northern Command, is responsible for defending U.S. territory from attack and helping civilian authorities in emergencies. It was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Robinson has an extensive background in command and control, the science of orchestrating military operations across a broad area. In her previous job, commander of Pacific Air Forces, her area of responsibility spanned more than half the globe.

"You're dealing with a lot of countries, a lot of the air forces in the Pacific, China being one of them," said Darryll Wong, a retired Air Force major general and Hawaii's former adjutant general. "She had to be a fast learner."

Robinson joined the Air Force in 1982 through the ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire.