Air Force Chief: Future Budgets a Concern But No Cause for Panic
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force’s responsibilities are taking off just as its resources to accomplish those missions are in a flat spin. Still, the service’s top officer said the future is nothing to fear.
“When we start talking about being resource-limited, downsizing and all those kinds of things, you have to stand back and realize how big the enterprise still is and not panic too quickly,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Sept. 17 in a keynote address to the Air Force Association’s annual conference here.
The air, space and cyber “domains are becoming more contested, they are becoming more congested and we’re having to figure out ways to do new missions in each one, but that’s what airmen do. We’ll get better and better and better at this, but those missions aren’t going away,” Welsh said. “As we prioritize resources in the future, that’s where we’ll focus.
Welsh has been challenged in his first year on the job to figure out what force structure the Air Force “could reasonably afford and be able to build by 2023” within tight budgetary parameters while still fulfilling its mission.
“We can’t finalize the track until we know what our topline budgets are going to look like,” Welsh said. “So, hopefully we’ll get some stability soon. We don’t have that yet, but we’re going to have to make assumptions because if we don’t we’re not going to be able to turn fast enough to get there.”
Despite budgetary uncertainty, the Air Force under Welsh remains committed to three big-ticket modernization programs: The KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new long-range strike bomber.
Still, everything is on the table as a source of potential cost savings, Welsh said. “Should we recapitalize — buy new — or should we modernize old equipment? This is not an easy decision. There are some things we cannot modernize to keep it viable against the threat after five or 10 years. There are some places we have got to recapitalize and that is going to take money away from the modernization program, which is being hit by sequestration.”
The KC-46, which is being built by Boeing and has passed its critical design review, is a "must have" for the Air Force, Welsh said. The service also is committed to continuing development and procurement of the much-maligned and long-delayed F-35, he said. Mismanagement and cost overruns that a year ago were seemingly inescapable have been brought under control, both Air Force and officials from manufacturer Lockheed Martin said at the conference.
“We have no other choice” but to pursue the F-35,” Welsh said. “If you don’t have it, you can’t operate in the air defense systems of the future. You can’t do it. And you can’t compete with fifth-generation aircraft if you don’t have a fifth-generation aircraft. You can’t dress up an old one and make it a new one. You can make it better, but you can’t make it this.”
With all three aircraft programs, Welsh said the Air Force must break price curves that have trended upward. Inflation also has to be arrested and slowed in personnel and infrastructure, he said.
“In 1945, a good airplane cost $5,000,” Welsh said. “Thirty years later, in 1975, it cost $5 million. Thirty years later in 2005 it cost $100 million. We can’t stay on that curve. In fact, the Air Force is off of it now. … We can’t afford it.”
Welsh said an immediate priority is to boost combat readiness. “Everyone knows [readiness has] been slipping,” he said. “Everybody is doing everything they can to keep us as ready as we can be, but the longer this [budget] stuff stretches out, the longer a continuing resolution goes next year, if we are hit by sequestration for another year or two, the worse it’s going to get. We just have to keep our eyes open and understand that and minimize the impact where we can. It’s not going to be good. “
Welsh outlined three specific areas where sequestration concerns him, beginning with a “breach of faith” with the Air Force’s civilian workforce that the automatic budget cuts have already caused.
The Air Force furloughed its civilian employees in 2013, costing 8 million man-hours, Welsh said. That added insult to injury considering those same employees have not had a pay raise in three years.
“That’s a huge hit,” he said. “That’s a lot of work that is not getting done. We have no plans to furlough in 2014, in case anyone was wondering. As long as the continuing resolution doesn’t go past six months, I don’t see any reason that we will have to. We didn’t have plans to furlough in 2013 until all this started.”
Sequestration also threatens the Air Force’s uniformed personnel. Pilots are not getting to fly because air wings are grounded and mechanics are ripe to be poached by the commercial aircraft industry, Welsh said.
“We have to worry about retention,’” Welsh said. “If we’re not making them as good as they can be, if we’re not challenging them and we’re not letting them train and we’re not letting them keep that edge, they’ll walk.”