State of the Air Force: Strong, But Financially Stressed
The prospect of a 9 percent across-the-board spending cut, or sequester, has been hanging over the Defense Department for more than a year, but only this week have Pentagon officials begun to lay out specific plans for how they would cope with the reductions.
Like all branches of the military, the Air Force is notifying its civilian workers of potential furloughs, has stopped hiring people, is canceling conferences and travel, banning purchases of non-essential items and deferring many buying decisions.
During a “State of the Air Force” discussion Jan. 11 at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III walked a political tightrope as they sought to explain the implications of the budget sequester.
Their message: Yes, budget cuts would be damaging, but would not gut the Air Force.
“The state of our Air Force remains strong,” Donley said. “The mission set of the Air Force, the core functions, what the chief refers to as the ‘calling cards’ would stay the same,” he said. “We will continue to do global ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], we will continue to do precision attack, mobility, command and control, special operations.”
As money gets tighter, though, some activities will be done with less frequency or at reduced scale, he said. “The challenge is capacity,” said Donley. “Those are issues not just for the Air Force but for all the services.”
In a Jan. 7 memorandum to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Donley and Welsh warn that, if Congress does not cancel the sequester by March, the Air Force will take the following actions:
• Cut aircraft depot maintenance and engine overhauls by 17 percent.
• Reduce flying hours by 18 percent.
• Curtail or cancel training exercises.
While the sequester would not necessarily result in the termination of weapon acquisition programs that already have been funded, the extended budget stalemate will hit Pentagon contractors hard. “With respect to acquisition program accounts, a year-long continuing resolution coupled with sequestration would impact weapon system program schedules; thus, creating a protracted disruptive effect to our modernization programs,” Donley and Welsh wrote in the memo. “This will result in canceled or delayed delivery of modernization capability is already undercapitalized to meet the new defense strategy.”
In his “State of the Air Force” briefing, Welsh said that, regardless of the outcome of the near-term sequester crisis, the service has to tackle long-term economic troubles, including a worrisome tooth-to-tail ratio. The Air Force has been seeking to shed excess facilities and aging aircraft, as well as reductions in its ranks, so it can shift resources to new weapon systems. That has sparked a contentious battle with Congress, which rejected Air Force proposals last year to take 286 aircraft out of service over the next five years, and remove 9,900 airmen from the force. Congress criticized Air Force leaders for levying the bulk of the cuts on the Air National Guard and Reserve. Under a recent compromise, Congress is allowing the Air Force to downsize its airlift fleet from 301 to 275. But more clashes with Congress lie ahead over this issue, Welsh acknowledged.
He said the Air Force is “absolutely committed” to being fair in apportioning future cuts, but he cautioned that, one way or the other, the Air Force has to become leaner in order to be able to invest in its future. High on the wish list are new aerial refueling tankers, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and a new long-range bomber.
“We have to figure out how to make modernization happen,” Welsh said. “Airmen see what’s going in Washington,” he said. Officers and enlisted troops all are worried about the budget crisis and what it means for the Air Force, he said. “This creates anxiety and frustration.”
Similar sentiments pervade the defense industry, where billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are at stake, pending the resolution of the latest fiscal-cliff standoff.
Industry adviser James McAleese, of McAleese & Associates, said the future of major Air Force procurements is tied to Donley’s and Welsh’s ability to persuade Congress to go along with their downsizing plan.
“There is a clear USAF leadership intent to warn both Congress, and parochial constituencies of the absolute need for the Air Force to secure additional force structure sizing discretion, to trade quantity for quality,” McAleese wrote in a memo to industry.
Donley and Welsh have sought to make a case that an aging fleet is becoming an albatross for the Air Force, which will have to keep spending dwindling funds to maintain old airplanes, thus draining resources from next-generation systems. Donley said “too many planes” are approaching 50 years of age.
Photo Credit: Air Force