Facing Tough Times, Air Force Unveils Blueprint for Change

By Sandra I. Erwin

Air Force leaders warn that difficult times lie ahead for the U.S. Air Force. Steep force reductions loom, there will be continuing budget battles with Congress, and troubled weapon acquisition programs are not out of the woods. With crises flaring up around the world, the Air Force is still struggling to restore war-fighting units to full combat readiness.

To deal with these challenges, the Air Force has to prepare for sweeping organizational and cultural change, warns a new document released July 30. "America's Air Force: A Call to the Future," suggests that the service's hidebound ways have become an impediment at a time when the force must adapt to new fiscal realities and keep up with rapidly moving technology.

"This call to the future is a roadmap to help guide our long-term planning efforts, and help us make smart money and policy choices," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh praised airmen for being "adaptive and resilient" but lamented that they are now going through a "tough time" as a result of budget cuts and doubts about whether they will have jobs in the future.

The Air Force's $137 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 is $20 billion smaller than it was three years ago.

"We are asking some of these men and women to involuntarily leave the Air Force," Welsh said. "There is nothing good or easy about that."

Although the core missions of the Air Force will not change, the service will shrink and will have to do business differently, said Welsh. "We have a responsibility to balance the force to a size that we can afford to train and operate."

Under the current budget plan, the Air Force will become substantially smaller, from a current size of 330,000 to 307,000 airmen within five years. By next spring, 13,400 airmen will be voluntarily departing and an additional 6,000 will be laid off. There could be further cuts pending Congress' approval of Air Force proposals to retire aging aircraft. Lawmakers have rejected such plans thus far, which could saddle the Air Force with extra costs it cannot absorb, Welsh said. "Force structure decisions have personnel implications," he said. "It's difficult to say exactly where we'll end up in the short term."

James acknowledged that morale in the force has taken a beating, and airmen have been rattled by a series of scandals in the Air Force, including embarrassing lapses in the management and operation of nuclear weapons, and cheating on job proficiency tests.

"The biggest issue on the minds of airmen is the uncertainty they are facing because of the downsizing, the uncertainty of budgets and where are we going with our air force," she said.

While it downsizes. the Air Force has to prepare for "uncomfortable" changes in how it organizes and operates, cautions "Call to the Future." The range of potential adversaries and missions will broaden due to rising geopolitical instability, the report says. "The proliferation of long-range precision strike weapons will allow any location on earth to be held at risk, creating global engagement zones; and airspace will be contested by increasingly advanced integrated air defense systems."

The Air Force is pouring most of its modernization funding into three programs: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46A refueling tanker and a new long-range bombers. Welsh said he is confident that these programs will move forward and that the F-35 will overcome current troubles, but worries that there is not enough money to invest in other areas such as space and cyber.

A smaller force will have to become more "strategically agile" in the face of these challenges, the report suggests. "We learned from sequestration that our brittle system often leads to suboptimal decisions that are difficult to reverse. Huge, long-term programs limit our options; we are too often left with 'all or nothing' outcomes and 'double or nothing' budget decisions." To succeed in the future, the Air Force must "jump the rails” from its current 20th century, industrial era processes and mindset.

The future Air Force will see more of its duties shift from the active-duty force to reservists. About 80 percent of the Air Force's current missions are being studied "to see what additional capability we might put in the future into the National Guard and Reserve," James said. The review will be completed by the end of the year.

The immediate priority for the coming months, she said, is to break the impasse with Congress over the retirement of the A-10 aircraft fleet, the shutdown of unneeded facilities and other contentious issues. Her message to lawmakers: "Please do not carve money out of readiness accounts."

Less than a year ago, the Air Force grounded 17 combat squadrons because it did not have funding to keep airplanes in the air, as a result of sequestration cuts. "What sequestration does essentially for the Air Force is it gives us a dilemma: Do we keep near-term readiness or do we fund long-term modernization and capability in the future? That's the balance we're trying to walk," Welsh said in December.

A similar crisis could happen again if no budget agreement is reached. "We have asked for more money in our fiscal year 2015 proposal to get those readiness levels up," said James. "How do we pay for this? Retiring older aircraft. But it has been difficult to get some of these proposals approved by Congress," she said. "If you think these choices in 2015 were tough, hold on to your hats because it's going to get worse in 2016."

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

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