Air Force to Congress: We Either Downsize or We Become ‘Hollow’
Both Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III have been walking a tightrope as they seek to make the case that they must trade quantity for quality so the Air Force doesn’t become “hollowed out” by across-the-board budget cuts.
Donley suggested Sept. 17 during a news conference at the Air Force Association’s 2012 Air & Space symposium that the service is desperately searching for a compromise with congressional committees that have blocked Air Force authority to cut 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Air Guard and 900 Reserve airmen in fiscal year 2013. Politicians are furious at the Air Force leadership for seeking to shut down Guard bases and shift aircraft to the active-duty force. The savings from these reductions would add up to $8 billion.
Donley said he is still hopeful for a deal. “We need to stay committed to the strategic decisions we made last year,” he said. “We need to get smaller to preserve quality and modernize.”
Donley worries that Congress is creating a bigger fiscal mess for the Air Force than it already has, as the service must cope with the automatic budget cuts that last year's Budget Control Act imposed on the entire federal government beginning in fiscal year 2013. “Readiness and modernization” would be in deep trouble if the Air Force is not able to shed people from its payroll, said Donley. “There is no free lunch,” he said.
The rising cost of uniformed and civilian personnel in the Defense Department is a familiar story. Unless the Pentagon’s budget top line is increased, keeping the force at its current size would require dipping into other portions of the budget, such as training, weapons acquisitions and research, officials have said.
These trends have alarmed Air Force leaders in recent years. Since 2004, active-duty personnel have shrunk from 360,000 to about 330,000. The service has 7 percent fewer airmen while personnel expenses have gone up 16 percent. Budget officials have estimated that if these trend line continue, the Air Force would have to shed more than 40,000 additional airmen over the next five years just to keep costs stable.
“We have to become smaller to preserve the quality,” Donley said.
Welsh and Donley also are in a tough spot because they are being blamed for saddling the Guard and Reserves with the bulk of the proposed personnel cuts. The Air National Guard has used its considerable political clout to convince lawmakers that these cuts are unfair. In an election year, talks of Guard base closures are taboo.
Donley said he and Welsh are in negotiations with Guard and Reserve leaders to come up with a reasonable compromise on how resources can be shared in the context of a “total force” organization.
“This is ongoing work,” said Donley. “The chief and I have discussed these issues with Guard and Reserve leadership,” he said. “We’re ready to look at the force structure adjustments we proposed and see if we can find an acceptable way forward.”
The prospect of getting the congressional green light to make cuts in the Guard are slim, however. The White Office of Management and Budget complained in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee that the provisions in H.R. 4310, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, are “disappointing.” The bill, for instance, imposes strict limitations on the retirement of weapon systems. “The administration strongly objects to provisions that would restrict retirements of C-27J, C-23, C-130, and other aircraft and the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30,” the OMB memo said. “Retaining large numbers of under-resourced aircraft in the fleet in today's fiscally constrained environment would significantly increase the risk of a hollow force.”
Preventing the retirement of the C-23 aircraft in 2013, for example, would cost $343.5 million for modernization and service life extension on the aircraft.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, has not outright opposed the Air Force’s plan but has dodged the issue by calling for a national commission to further debate future Air Force personnel and force structure decisions.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Sept. 18 via satellite to a roomful of former members of Congress in Washington, D.C., offered more reasons for Air Force leaders to be pessimistic about getting their plans approved. Today’s Congress, Gates said, simply is not interested in sensible policy making. “Across the spectrum, too many of our politicians seem more concerned with winning elections and scoring ideological points than with saving the country. My hope is that following the presidential election, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country back in order,” Gates told the conference, which was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Although Gates firmly opposes the automatic budget cuts that would hit the Pentagon in 2013, he said there is no reason why every defense dollars should be sacrosanct. “One need only spend 10 minutes walking around the Pentagon or any major military headquarters to see excess and redundancy,” he said.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, who also addressed the CSIS panel, warned that Pentagon budget decisions, if they are not based on strategic priorities, put the military at risk of being hollowed out.
Roughly 50 to 65 percent of the entire budget goes to payroll, benefits and retiree programs, he said. If these accounts are exempt from cuts, the military will most likely end up raiding operations and maintenance funds, Mullen said. “You start pulling the training money, the logistics money, the maintenance money, because it’s money you can get your hands on in the very near term.”
Photo Credit: Yasmin Tadjdeh