Air Force Preparing To Retire Aircraft, 'Balance Talent' Among Components

By Dan Parsons

When President Obama in March releases his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, it likely will include aircraft retirements and force reductions for the Air Force, the service's newly appointed secretary, Deborah Lee James, said Jan. 29.

Despite an 11th-hour budget deal that provided the Defense Department some relief from across-the-board sequestration cuts, the Air Force has had to make “tough choices” in balancing fiscal realities with its need to modernize, she said.

“There will be decisions in there, some of which you may like and some of which you will not like. I guarantee there will be some [decisions] in there that Congress will like and others Congress will not like,” James said at an Air Force Association breakfast outside Washington, D.C.

“We’ve had everything on the table,” she added. “There has been talk about retirement of some fleets of aircraft, obviously the force-shaping initiatives. We’ll be reducing headquarters.”

The service will also be “balancing talent” among its active, Guard and Reserve components, James said. An independent commission is scheduled to report to Congress on the schism that has divided the various arms of the Air Force in recent months, stemming from what many in the service and on Capitol Hill felt were unfairly apportioned budget cuts. James said the commission’s recommendations likely will mirror plans she and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have already drawn up for total force restructuring.

In the future, the Air Force will rely more, rather than less, on its Guard and Reserve components, she added.
Precise details of how the Air Force will approach its near- and long-term goals will not be known until the president’s budget rolls out in March, James said.
She took the job as the 23rd Air Force secretary in December but was officially sworn in only last week. Since taking office, she has had little good news to report to airmen, the public, or Congress.

On top of ongoing fiscal woes that are being felt throughout the Defense Department, James inherited an Air Force mired in sexual assault scandals and the paradoxical realities of dwindling budgets and the need for modernization. Almost as soon as her laborious Senate appointment hearings ended, she was back on Capitol Hill to testify about a cheating and drug-use scandal among officers in charge of land-based nuclear arsenals.

Still, James said, “this is a very, very exciting time to be serving. The strategic environment that we face is dynamic and the threats to our national security both overseas and here at home  continue to evolve. The fiscal environment that we face is also extremely challenging. Even when we are thankful and take into account the budget agreement that was recently passed and the fact that we will have some relief and some certainty, at least for the immediate future.”

Sequestration, which would have stripped $52 billion from the defense budget next year and more than $500 billion over the next decade, has already affected Air Force readiness in the current fiscal year, James said. Repairing the deficit in training, manpower and acquisition will be a top priority for the year ahead, she added.

“Readiness levels particularly slipped last year when we were facing sequestration and we have to get those levels back up,” she said. “We owe it to our airmen that they have the right training and the right equipment. With the relief that we will receive in FY 2014 and 2015 through the budget agreement and the lifting of sequestration … certainly readiness will be the top priority.”

James tracked her predecessors and uniformed Air Force leaders in naming as the service’s top modernization priorities the F-35 joint strike fighter, a new mid-air refueling tanker and a replacement for the B-2 long-range strike bomber.

It is an ambitious list of development and acquisition programs given the need to “deliver capability at the very best price tag … with programs that are on budget and on schedule.” The ongoing F-35 program, which has become the most expensive weapon system the Defense Department has ever purchased, is the antithesis of the fiscal priorities James laid out.

James said her experience as a defense industry executive could be a resource for the Air Force as it attempts to drive down the cost of modernization. Prior to taking the post as the Air Force’s top civilian, she held several executive-level positions with Science Applications International Corporation.

“Coming out of industry, as I do, I hope that that skill and knowledge with help the Air Force do better on this,” she said. “We owe it to the American people to be able to audit our books. We have to keep in mind the strategy element … of preparing for whatever the nation might ask us to do, but also the budget element.  Without consideration of both of those, we may well come up with a plan that is not realistic and that is no help to anybody.”

James spent nearly half her address covering the Air Force’s response to the recent scandal in which dozens of officers were found to have routinely cheated on monthly proficiency tests.

After visiting several Air Force bases that host intercontinental ballistic missiles to gauge morale, she said a “systemic problem” exists within the nuclear force. The command structure offers little opportunity for advancement and is quick to punish failure, which creates an atmosphere of pervasive stress and fear, she said. Still, the Air Force remains committed to maintaining its nuclear capabilities and is preparing to address the issue at every level of command, she said. An independent commission is expected to report to Congress on how the Air Force should proceed within the week.

‘This was a failure of integrity on the part of certain airmen. It was not a failure of the mission,” James said. “The mission is strong. It remains safe, secure and reliable.”

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

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