Air Force: Damage From Flight Training Cuts Could Last for Years
The law requires the Pentagon to cut spending by $41 billion by Sept. 30. The Air Force’s $110 billion budget for 2013 would be trimmed to $102.8 billion.
While news of training cutbacks sent shockwaves through blue-suit communities such as Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and Langley Air Force Base, Va., the reaction in Washington, D.C., has been relatively muted. Sequestration came March 1 and the sky didn’t fall, so the Air Force having to curtail training for a few months has not been viewed as a serious national security emergency.
That sequestration was hyped as doomsday by Pentagon and defense industry leaders over the past year is now hurting the military’s ability to make a case that the cuts are truly damaging. When the deadline came and went, the consequences of the sequester were not glaringly obvious. The belief that the cuts didn’t cause the mayhem that had been predicted could create lasting problems for the U.S. Air Force, said Gen. Gilmary M. Hostage III, commander of Air Combat Command, headquartered at Langley. He is responsible for organizing, training and equipping air combat forces.
The reality, he said, is that training cuts that appear relatively minor today have compounding effects that could weaken the Air Force for years to come, he said April 11 at the Atlantic Council, in Washington, D.C.
“The level of pain in dealing with this sequester really is significant” even if it is not visible, said Hostage. “It’s hard to make it understandable to someone who doesn’t live in the world I live in.”
Hostage issued orders April 8 to reduce training at nine fighter and three bomber squadrons. Those units would still be able to go to war, if needed, within the next several months, he said. “Degradation is not something immediately visible on the flying side. But it does not take long for pilots to start losing proficiency and for their skills to atrophy if they are not flying, he said.
Besides cutbacks in flying hours, the Air Force also is shutting down several training ranges and its weapons school at Nellis. “That doesn’t have immediate impact” either, he said. The current pilot class will be truncated and will graduate without the final graduation exercise, said Hostage. The next class that would be following, however, will be canceled. “That is going to affect the Air Force for the next 20 years. I can’t get that class back,” he said. With no access to training ranges, pilots will not be able to practice skills such as precision bomb dropping, he said.
Even if sequester cuts were reversed eventually, it could take up to two years to re-open a closed training facility, he said. Testing and training ranges are maintained and operated by contractors. Once a contract is terminated, those workers will seek employment elsewhere. “It will take me a year or two to get them back and reconstitute that range,” said Hostage. “Recovery will be long term.”
Hostage also lamented having to suspend the Air Force’s Red Flag live-flying exercise at Nellis, which he described as the “crown jewel” of combat training. Air Force crews who cannot fly will have access to simulators, but they will not be able to have their simulators connected virtually with crews in other bases for a more realistic training experience. Those networking systems were another casualty of sequestration.
The Air Force’s budget woes partly are to blame on politicians who are keeping the service from shedding unnecessary overhead that is draining its coffers, Hostage said. Air Force leaders have sought to close bases, terminate programs and reduce the size of the force, but Congress has pushed back, as military bases are vital employers in some communities, and major contributors to local economies. “Ideally, I’d like to close every third base,” Hostage said, and then rephrased his thought. “I wouldn’t like to do it, but we don’t have a choice. We dropped 500 aircraft and hardly closed an installation,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for budget, said the flight-hour reductions across the service will be 203,000, from a total of 1.16 million hours. Of the 203,000 hours that are being eliminated, 45,000 are from combat forces. The savings amount to $1.3 billion from training, and about $1.7 billion from weapons sustainment, Bolton said April 10 at a Pentagon news conference.
How the Air Force would restore lost training is unclear, he said. “It depends upon when this scenario [sequester] ends. … One of the biggest challenges we have here is that there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty. If you could tell me how long it was going to last or what was going to happen next year, I could do a better job of telling” when training could return to previous levels. "Sequestration in 2013 creates significant 'bow wave' into 2014," he said.
Simulation-based training would not compensate for actual flying in many specialized skills, such as aerial refueling, said Bolton. “There is a lot of things they can do with simulators. There's a lot of things they can do with bookwork, but there's no substitute for actually doing the plug and play it takes to do a refueling,” said Bolton. “There is a correlation between the time it takes between the last time you were trained, how frequently that is, and the accident rate. They say that if people do not do an actual plug-in, right, and do an actual refueling, and you haven't had one in several months, then their accident ratio goes up.”
There is no “get well plan” in place yet, because there is no funding in fiscal year 2014, he said, If money becomes available in 2014, those air crews that are not “mission ready,” said Bolton, will have to make it their job to become mission ready.
Photo Credit: Atlantic Council, Air Force