Air Force in Wait-and-See Mode on Budget Cuts

By Dan Parsons
The fiscal troubles facing the U.S. Air Force are daunting. Pentagon budget cuts planned for the coming years will affect all branches of the military, but the Air Force will be particularly challenged as it has staked its future on several big-ticket procurement programs that could become increasingly vulnerable to the budget ax.
Blue-suit leaders, meanwhile, continue to dodge questions about how they plan to tackle these challenges.
Speaking at a Nov. 29 Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C., Lt. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III said the service remains committed to its expensive platforms and to “keeping faith” with its airmen. “However the fiscal challenges play out, we are committed to fielding the best Air Force,” said Newton, who serves as Air Force vice chief of staff and director of the Air Staff. While that Air Force will likely be smaller than at present, it would still be “very, very capable,” he said.
Newton's vague answers echo comments made in recent months by other senior officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who have sounded alarms about the impact of budget cuts, but have offered no specifics on what steps the military is prepared to take to downsize or reduce costs.
Newton gave no hints of what preparations might be under way for shoehorning the existing Air Force into a constrained fiscal environment.
Air Force officials will “wait to see how that [budget battle] plays out” before deciding where and what to slash, rather than prepare for the worst, Newton said.
The worst, in this case, would be the "sequestration" cuts that loom following last week's collapse of the debt-reduction super committee and the prospect of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts beginning in January 2013 — half of which would come from the Defense Department.
Panetta is said to have instructed the services to not factor any cuts related to the $600 billion sequestration in their fiscal year 2013 budgets. The 2013 budget, however, must begin to absorb $450 billion in cuts that already Congress has approved for the coming decade.
These relatively modest reductions alone could cause significant turmoil for Air Force budgets, as most of the cutbacks are expected to fall disproportionately on weapons programs. That spells trouble for the next decade when the Air Force's major modernization program are scheduled to begin full-rate production. These include the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a replacement for its aging aerial refueling tanker and possibly a new long-range bomber.
Asked whether those platforms would survive the current budget crisis, Newton simply replied that “tough decisions will have to be made.” That goes for both the service’s “force structure and our modernization as well,” he said.
Still, “our commitment to certain weapons systems remains strong,” he said. “We are wading through a lot of those current fiscal challenges today. We are striving to stay on pace to achieve our crucial programs.”
Support for big-ticket weapons must be balanced against the Air Force's growing personnel costs, Newton said. “Platforms are important and essential but there is also a balance where we need to find how we’re are able to provide support for our men and women in uniform and our civilians.”
If the Air Force indeed does shrink, leaders are hopeful that they can increase cooperation with allies and  thus spread the burden of future operations. Citing the recent NATO air war in support of Libyan rebels, Newton said similar international partnerships could “overcome any shortfalls in material performance.” Since 2004, the Air Force has conducted 225 joint agreements with foreign partners worth $29 billion, Newton said. He also lauded the 200 personnel exchanges currently underway with 140 countries.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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