The White House announced the nomination in a statement issued Thursday, in which Obama praised James by saying, "Deborah's strong record of public service and leadership in the private sector makes her uniquely qualified to be my nominee for Secretary of the Air Force."
James is president of the technology and engineering sector at defence contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). She has been an executive with the company since 2004.
James also served as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998.
If confirmed by the Senate, James would be one of the few women ever to serve as the senior civilian leader of an armed services branch.
James spent a decade as a staffer for the House Armed Services Committee before being confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. She has held various positions during a 30-year career in government and the private sector, and serves on the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.