Air Force Commanders: Enough With the Budget Cuts
Not much, according to a panel of three- and four-star leaders who were asked this question Sept. 21 at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition. This year’s gathering, which coincides with the service’s birthday, was marked by discussion about expectations that the Pentagon would be asked to cut spending by $500 billion, or possibly as much as $1 trillion, over the next decade.
Air Force leaders said they would fight to keep their core missions intact, but deep enough cuts could completely alter the service and what functions it can perform. Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Gary North said that the reductions could turn a global Air Force into a regional one.
Commanders need to start saying, “Enough is enough,” said Gen. Will Fraser, who is leaving Air Combat Command to become the head of U.S. Transportation Command. He was speaking about the added stress further reductions could bring to service members who are already dealing with a rapid succession of deployments and assignments.
“We cannot be afraid to say no, because otherwise we’ll break the force,” Fraser said.
The flight hours of Global Strike Command already have been cut by about a third since 2004. Further slashes would be unsustainable, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski.
His $5 billion budget is less than 1 percent of all Defense Department spending, but he sees parallels between his organization and the big picture.
“We’re sort of a microcosm of the challenge the entire Air Force faces,” Kowalski said. “Unless there is a change in strategy, the only thing left to do is to resize this force and try to get to those personnel costs.”
That obviously would affect the number of airmen that needed to be trained, but it also could result in changes to training curriculum, leaders said. The service’s Chief Master Sgt. James Roy said that would be a slippery slope.
“Our airmen are absolutely concerned,” he said, and training is something the Air Force needs to protect. Roy fears that a knee-jerk reaction to demands for reductions will be to find cuts in training. “We’re risking our future if we do that.”
Other generals have their priorities, too, things that they say can’t afford to take a hit.
At the Air Mobility Command, those things are its core functions of lift, refueling and medical evacuation, Gen. Raymond Johns said. At Air Force Special Operations Command, they are specialized mobility and precision strike capability, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel said.
Air Force Space Command also needs to maintain a foundational layer of functions, Gen. William Shelton said. These include missile warning, GPS and protected communications.
Gen. Mark Welsh, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said that his organization probably could find ways to reduce its workload and find savings. However, he warned against cutting from training budgets and allowing international missile defense efforts to be curtailed.
“Our job is to work with NATO and it will require more resources, not fewer,” Welsh said. “Other than that, everything is on the table.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz cautioned against panic.
“This is not a time to despair,” he said. “We’re still going to be a $100 billion Air Force and we can do a hell of a lot with that.”