Air Force Fears Irreversible Damage From Budget Impasse
With no clarity on next year’s or any future year budget, the U.S. Air Force expects to continue to have to ground airplanes, curtail pilot training and take other cost-cutting measures that, leaders fear, could permanently weaken the force.
“We never have put so many people on the ground because of a fiscal crisis,” said Lt. Gen. Burton M. Field, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
In one of the most pessimistic outlooks yet offered by a senior military official since sequester began, Field warned that the spending cuts, piled on to other earlier fiscal problems, is putting the Air Force at risk of losing its most highly trained pilots and of not being able to invest in its future leaders.
The 10 percent reduction mandated by sequestration could be absorbed by the Air Force without eroding its combat readiness if it were given discretion on what to cut and a firm forecast of how much money it will have in future budgets, Field said July 25 at a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the Air Force Association.
If the Air Force were able to close unneeded bases and make cuts to pay, benefits and other overhead expenses, it could more easily adjust to a reduced top line without gutting its combat power, he said. But in the absence of a budget plan and flexibility to allocate funds, the Air Force isscrambling to keep airplanes flying and airmen trained, Field said.
“We don’t have any real hard data on what’s going to happen in fiscal year 2014, and we don’t really know how we’re going to work through the out-years, either,” Field said.
“The reason we have problems is that we don’t have the right guidance on how we want to take cuts or shape the future,” he said. “We haven’t come to an agreement on how we are going to balance our active duty force against the Reserves force and Air National Guard.”
The sequester for the Air Force amounts to a $10 billion reduction per year over the next decade. When the cuts went into effect March 1, the service was already in a readiness deficit because it had to fund a $1.8 billion gap in its war operations budget. That made it all the more difficult to absorb another $10 billion hit, Field said. “Combat squadrons couldn’t afford to fly.”
In April, nine fighter and four bomber squadrons were grounded, and just last week returned to limited flying after the Air Force was authorized to shift funds from other accounts. The fix is only temporary, as a new fiscal year will begin Oct. 1. With Congress unlikely to agree on a budget on time, the Air Force could be grounding units again.
The disruptions to flying and weapons school training are significant and the impact has yet to be measured, Field said. “Coming out of this will be interesting,” he said. “We collected data while they were not flying and now we are monitoring how they are going to get back.”
Grounded pilots spent months studying academics, training in simulators and doing professional development. “But without practicing, it’s hard to apply the knowledge,” Field said. “Those skills are perishable.”
Combat readiness was already below par before sequestration, Field said. The 2014 budget request includes funds to boost flying hours. The uncertainty about next year’s budget is going to continue to erode readiness, he said. “Nobody on the planet knows what the fiscal year 2014 budget is going to be.”
Field, who has two sons currently serving in the Air Force, has heard first-hand accounts of the disillusionment that the fiscal crunch is instilling across the force, as junior officers believe they will not have the career opportunities that their elders had.
The younger generations of officers are “not advancing as fast as we have in the past,” said Field. “This is common throughout all communities now. … and is going to have ripple effects [in both the combat] and the institutional air force.”
The officers in Field’s generation could aspire to become instructor pilots when they were either first lieutenants or captains. They could be weapons school instructor as mid-level captains. Today, said Field, “There is nobody who is going to be a weapons school instructor as a two-year captain. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “We can’t get them through training and they don’t fly enough to get there,” he said. “The way we are growing our leaders for the future is going to be different. … We are trying to quantify what that means for the tactical and operational confidence of our future leaders.”
The ramifications of what is happening today are hard to predict, Field acknowledged. Under any scenario, cuts to training programs will be detrimental, he said. “The continuum of training is what has produced the air force we have today. When we cut the undergraduate, the formal training, we reduce the quality of the Air Force.”
Field said he worries about pilot morale. “They want to fly airplanes. They do not want to sit on the ground and study academics, day after day, and not fly airplanes. If we are going to create a force that doesn’t fly airplanes, we are going to face retention issues.”
Of the current active-duty force of 329,489 airmen (65,084 officers and 264,405 enlisted), 14,426 are pilots, 3,643 navigators and 1,540 air battle managers in the grade of lieutenant colonel and below.
It costs about a billion dollars to fund 25,000 airmen per year. The force has been shrinking gradually since 2004, when it reached 360,000 airmen. At the same time, personnel expenses have gone up 16 percent, according to Air Force estimates.