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Nellis Air Force Base Gets Short End of the Budget Stick
By Stew Magnuson


Red Flag training exercises at Nellis Air Force Base

Funding shortfalls caused by sequestration and a continuing budget resolution will end most operations at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., until the end of the fiscal year, a senior Air Force official said May 23.
 
Nellis, located just north of Las Vegas, is a key base for the test and evaluation of new aircraft and upgrades, the home of the Red Flag training exercises as well as the legendary, top-secret Area 51 facility.
 
Lt. Gen. Burton Field, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said about the only activity that will continue at Nellis until October is testing of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The evaluation of new weapon systems and upgrades for the F-16, F-22, F-15, F-15E, and A-10 will come to a halt, he said at an Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Va.
 
Those aircraft “need to operate in a contested and sophisticated environment. … If I can’t test a new radar, I can’t release it to the field,” he told reporters after a speech. There is also a possibility that the highly complex range at Nellis would have to be shut down if things grow worse, he added.
 
“You have to keep the [Nellis] range open. That costs money. But if you shut down the range, and everybody leaves, then you lose all that expertise. It is hard to get it back and start it up again,” he said.
 
The Air Force went through a list of funding priorities that it hopes will allow it to make it until the end of the fiscal year in September. First and foremost were ongoing military operations. Next came support of forces in South Korea and squadrons in Japan that back them up, although some of them did take some cuts in flying hours.
 
That has left training and modernization as two areas where the service has the leeway to make cuts. Nellis, where many of these related activities take place, ended up on the short end of the budget stick. In addition, the Air Force has grounded 31 squadrons spread out across other air bases.
 
It is hoped that these cutbacks will allow the Air Force to make it until Sept. 30. The problem is that nobody knows what is going to happen between now and then. Contingencies may force the Air Force to spend more money, he said. He denied rumors that the Air Force is planning to completely halt all training come September, but he couldn’t guarantee that this scenario wouldn’t come to pass.
 
“We will still train. But it depends between now and then what pops up,” Field said. “If I run out of money now, I am not going to have any in September. If I am not allowed to save it until September, and somebody that can tells me to go spend it, and we go spend it on something else, it isn’t going to be available.”
 
Most of the funding the service has slashed has come out of new aircraft accounts, he said. Priorities for modernization continue to be the F-35, the KC-46 tanker and the long-range bomber, he added.
 
“We think we can keep those on track. … If we get a whole bunch of more cuts then we are going to have to go back and do a whole bunch more calculations,” he said.

“We are just delaying something that we need later," he said. If the Air Force need to be ready in 2023, it will have to ensure that these new aircraft are ready to fly, he said.
 
As far as ongoing operations, there is little the Air Force can do. A few missions have been cut in coordination with combatant commanders. Southern Command, for example, has reduced support for counter-drug missions in Colombia, he said.
 
As far as space and cyberspace, network security operations are actually getting plus-ups as Cyber Command has asked the services to increase their capabilities, Field said. There is little fat to be cut out of space operations. A few radars that used to run 24/7 have been shut down because they were redundant, he said. They could rapidly be called back into action, if needed, he said.
 
Field admitted that the budget crunch is changing the way he thinks. “I heard in the building the other day, ‘Hey, you should do that, it’s only a million dollars.’ My personal opinion is that nobody in the Department of Defense should say from now on, ‘only’ and ‘a million dollars’ in the same sentence. … I’ve got a lot of uses for a million dollars.”

Photo Credit: Stew Magnuson

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