Even with budget agreement, Air Force faces painful choices

Monday - 12/16/2013, 3:47am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Air Force says the budget agreement the House voted to approve last week should help solve some of the service's short-term military readiness problems.

But even with a moderate reprieve from sequestration, the service is warning Congress that politically unpopular cutbacks are inevitable.

If the Senate passes and President Barack Obama signs the Murray-Ryan budget agreement, it would give the Defense Department more of a gradual glidepath to the budget limits imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Instead of a budget figure of $498 billion for 2014, DoD would have $521 billion.

The figures for 2016 and beyond are unchanged, but Eric Fanning, the acting secretary of the Air Force, told reporters Friday that the military would now at least have time to prepare for those lower spending levels.

The Senate on Friday confirmed Deborah Lee James to be the new Air Force secretary.

"While it still takes us down to numbers lower than we would like and doesn't solve all of our problems, it at least provides some relief over the next two years, additional funds that will help us with our readiness shortfalls. And it allows for some stability and planning, something we've been without far too long," he said. "But even with this relief, we will need to resize the Air Force to one that is smaller than it is today in order to protect investments we need for the future and to shape an Air Force that we can keep ready. The sooner we can get on that path, the sooner we can get to a new normal for our airmen, uniformed and civilian, and allow them to return their attention more fully to the mission that attracted them to service in the first place."

Conducting that resizing will inevitably require the Air Force to propose cutting out programs that have strong political constituencies in and outside of DoD, Fanning said. In some areas, he said, the Air Force has even less room to maneuver because Congress has prohibited it from making decisions like closing bases.

"It's important to remember that we can't view these cuts individually and ad hoc and in isolation. We need to remember, even with the relief this budget compromise offers in the next two years, we are building a budget that includes steep cuts. If something is restored to the budget we present to the Hill, something else will need to go," Fanning said. "So while we wait to see what level of funding the Air Force will ultimately be given for this year and next, we need to be prepared for real change."

Deliberating cuts to people, weapons

Among what will be the hardest changes to sell to lawmakers: the Air Force has already made clear that it believes it will likely have to deactivate entire fleets of aircraft in order to meet requirements of the Budget Control Act, especially types that have a limited number of roles and missions.

The A-10 attack jet is mentioned frequently, although Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said the service chiefs haven't made decisions on any particular airframes.

"Without regard to any specific airplane, how do you save dollars that have a 'B' after them, instead of amounts of dollars that have a 'M' after them? And to do that you have to start talking about fleet divestitures, because you have to get rid of the infrastructure behind the aircraft — the logistics tail, the supply systems, the facilities that do all the logistical support, depot maintenance, etc. That's where you create big savings," Welsh said. "So to find $12 billion a year, we have to look at chunks of money. That's why we're having this discussion. There are proponents for a whole lot of systems, and I agree with all of them. But somebody has to balance this. And I believe that's our job."

The Air Force also is developing plans to downsize its force, both uniformed and civilian. Last week, the service announced that it would trim its civilian workforce by 900 positions during 2014 and leave another 7,000 unfilled jobs vacant.

In the coming weeks, it is planning to announce specific details on voluntary and involuntary programs to cut thousands of uniformed airmen over the next five years, including early retirement boards and voluntary separation pay programs.

Readiness top priority

"We'd love to get all this done with voluntary force-shaping measures over a period of time. And if we have the leeway based on budget decisions to do that, we'll go that route," Welsh said. "If we don't and we have to take involuntary measures, I would like everyone to have at least six months of time to talk to their family, to think about the impact this could have on them, to look with a reality-based approach to where they are in their career, where they're going in their career, are they really at risk for any of these measures occurring to them. And have that conversation with someone in their immediate chain of command, so they have people talking to them and giving them the facts, so they can make a fact-based decision as opposed to an emotional one. That's the reason for putting the guidance out early. I hope that something changes in the budget environment and three months from now we put out a note saying, 'Never mind, don't do any of that.'"

With the limited budget relief it's expecting in 2014, the Air Force plans to focus its attention on readiness. Officials say that's the area that was damaged most by sequestration in 2013, when it had to cut back on flying and training hours and ground entire air wings.

"It's at the top of our payback list," Welsh said. "And so if we get any more funding here in the first couple of years of sequestration, clearly it doesn't change the long-term picture of sequestration, but it allows us to put money back into near-term readiness. Which is a really good thing because 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."

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