Air Force's Top Civilian Leader Warns of More 'Budget Churn' Ahead

By Sandra I. Erwin

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The standard-issue speech by Pentagon officials these days can be summed up like this: Budget cuts are necessary to fix the nation's finances, everything should be on the table, but don't forget that the U.S. military is still at war, and troops must not be short-changed.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley delivered another such message to a large crowd of service members and military contractors.
"We remain a nation at war, engaged in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya ... [while] there is also a war on debt and deficits," Donley said Sept. 19 in a keynote speech to the Air Force Association's Air & Space annual symposium.
The Air Force already is tightening its belt in just about every area of business, Donley said. The cutbacks already mandated by the August debt-ceiling agreement are "achievable," he said, but will create "greater risk."
Donley, taking cues from his boss Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, acknowledged that "tough choices" will be needed, but did not offer any hints of what those might be. He echoed Panetta's assertions that further reductions to the defense budget beyond the $350 billion over 10 years that were part of the debt-ceiling deal would create "challenges and risks."
Donley reassured airmen that Panetta "has promised to fight for service members and their families as we face these budget challenges."
The leaders of the Air Force, like those of the other branches of the military, are still hopeful that even in these times of fiscal austerity, there is still a chance that they can have their cake, and eat it too.
"We are in a season of important national debate, and there will be more budget churn, but we have to move forward in a way that protects our national security and will provide our national leadership with the tools necessary to defend America's interests in the complex security environment in which we live." That includes "ensuring the United States continues to have the world's finest Air Force for generations to come."
Funding priorities are being discussed, but no drastic calls have been made so far, Donley noted. "While there are many unanswered questions right now, and no fiscal decisions have been made, a number of alternative plans and options are being considered."
Despite Donley's reassurances that the Air Force's essential missions and most cherished modernization programs -- such as the aerial refueling tanker, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a next-generation long-range bomber -- will be protected from the budget axe, reality points to a future in which the Air Force could gradually shrink in size, and most likely will be flying older aircraft.
While the Air Force has expanded its ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) fleet by more than 300 aircraft, the overall size of the fleet is heading down. At least 1,500 aircraft have been retired from service in recent years. Although new hardware is being acquired, only 50 percent of what’s coming out is being replaced.
Since 2004, active-duty personnel have shrunk from 360,000 to 332,000. A cause for alarm is the prospect of having to lay off thousands more as a result of the rising costs of payroll and benefits.Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton said in March that during the past seven years, the Air Force has seen a 7 percent decline in its ranks and yet personnel expenses have gone up 16 percent. “If you keep personnel spending constant … we found that if the trend line continues over the next five years, we would have to get rid of 47,000 people just to keep costs stable,” she said.
The best hope to avert such drastic force cuts is that Congress agrees to reform compensation plans and health care benefits, such as increasing Tricare fees for retirees. The Air Force already is taking steps to eliminate some reenlistment bonuses for occupations that are in lower demand.
In the face of the debt-ceiling cuts and the possibility of further reductions, the likely outcome will be big-picture strategic choices, such as deciding between end-strength and modernization.
For the Air Force, rising aircraft maintenance costs also are a huge concern. Conaton described the current cost trends as “unsustainable.”
On the weapons acquisition side, the mantra is to control cost. A new stealthy long-range bomber has risen to the top of the Air Force’s wish list from concerns that other countries are developing “anti access” air defenses that would deny U.S. forces the ability to penetrate enemy airspace. The program is being closely scrutinized from the highest levels of the Pentagon to make sure it avoids the pitfalls that have doomed other military programs.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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