Air Force: Sequestration already creating 'chronic inefficiency'

Friday - 2/8/2013, 5:57pm EST

To say nothing of the impacts that would occur if automatic federal budget cuts are actually triggered, the intensive planning efforts and pre-emptive spending reductions the Air Force is already undertaking as preemptive measures are taking a toll on military preparedness and combat capability, officials said Thursday.

Like the other military services, the Air Force has already taken preliminary measures to slow the rate at which it's spending money in the current fiscal year though measures such as a civilian hiring freeze and conference cancellations. But some of the longer-term impacts will come from the mere fact that the Air Force's planners have been distracted by a seemingly constant string of budget crises, said Dr. Jamie Morin, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force.

"In an ideal world you'd want your Department of Defense leadership focusing on organizing, training and equipping the force the nation needs in a potential contingency five or ten years from now. Sequestration has us looking a month from now, a week from now, a day from now," he said. "It's like driving down a highway at 70 miles an hour staring right at your hood ornament. It's not a recipe for success."

Morin told reporters at the Pentagon the Air Force estimates that the combination of the March 1 sequestration cuts and a full-year continuing resolution in the absence of an enacted DoD budget would leave the service with a $12.4 billion shortfall by the end of the year if it took no action to reserve funds. Besides the hiring and travel cutbacks, the Air Force has already ordered its major commands to cut back on all unnecessary spending and cancelled all non-emergency maintenance to its facilities.

"This is a pretty serious pull-back," he said. "It hits things like runway repairs, taxiway repairs, lighting system repairs, sewer lines, energy efficiency improvements, all of the rest of those sorts of installation-level activities that we carry on. We've got a list of over 400 projects that will be affected, hitting 140 different installations, 34 states, numerous overseas countries. This is a pretty big deal. It may not get as much attention as sometimes the effects on the big major acquisition programs, yet the reality is at local levels bases are already beginning to see projects deferred that will yield deteriorated facilities and a significant hit to the local contractor work forces that perform that kind of work for us."

Besides construction, cutbacks already in place at the major command level include expenditures on service contracting, IT projects and facility support. Morin said those reductions have already taken a noticeable bite out of the small business contracts the Air Force was planning to execute for the year, and comes at a time when the service was struggling to turn around a decline in small firm contracting that had lasted several years.

"That is clearly at risk, and frankly out the window if sequestration hits," Morin said. "We're already seeing a three percentage point decline in our [small business] utilization, which will more than reverse the progress that we've made. It's a $100 million deterioration so far."

Furloughs necessary under sequestration

If sequestration occurs, the Air Force will make another series of cuts that it says would be more damaging, and more difficult to reverse.

Like the other services, it would immediately begin to furlough each of its 120,000 civilian employees for one day a week for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in September, a move Morin said would be a "destructive breach of faith" with the Air Force's non-uniformed workforce.

Impact to military missions would be especially severe in Air Force operations that are dominated by civilian employees, said Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force's Vice Chief of Staff.

"I have spoken with several of our Airmen in the field about sequestration and what it would mean to them. A flying training wing commander at the busiest airfield in the Air Force is extremely concerned about what will happen to his work force since his entire maintenance team consists of government civilians," Spencer said. A combination of a decreased workforce and a shortfall in cash to purchase spare parts and perform maintenance would create a "bow wave" of deferred aircraft depot repair into 2014, when the Air Force's cash picture isn't expected to be any brighter.

"We have $11 billion programmed to spend this year. Of that, we will have spent half of that by the first of March," Spencer said. "Of the remaining $5.5 billion, sequestration will result in a cut of roughly $2 billion. That means we will not be able to perform crucial maintenance on approximately 150 aircraft and more than 80 engines of all types in all of our depots. Not only will this have a significant impact on aircraft available to fly missions, it will also drive a ripple effect through our depots that could take five years or more to recover."