Air Force's sequestration hit would mean less of everything

Monday - 1/14/2013, 5:19am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Air Force is mapping out ways to cut out everything but the basics as it draws up plans for how it would handle sequestration.

The across-the-board cuts now are scheduled to take place on March 1 after Congress instituted a two-month delay earlier this month as part of the partial agreement on taxes and other increases.

The Air Force is complying with guidance the Pentagon issued last Thursday by creating a game plan to conserve cash in case the cuts do happen midway through the fiscal year, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told reporters at the Pentagon Friday.

The plans will include "civilian hiring restrictions, curtailing non-readiness or mission essential flying and travel, curtailing or stopping minor purchases such as furniture and IT refreshment and deferring non-emergency facility sustainment, restoration and modernization," Donley said.

Air Force headquarters will send specific directions with more details to the service's major commands within the next few days. But an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press shows the Air Force believes it would have to reduce flying hours by 20 percent and put an end to all flights that aren't involved in combat or otherwise considered mission essential.

Donley told reporters the plans would be designed to be "reversible" in the event Congress manages to cancel sequestration as it grapples with nearly-simultaneous fights in February and March over raising the federal debt ceiling and resolving the federal budget for the remainder of fiscal 2013.

Training for deployed pilots a priority

He also said the Air Force would do everything it could to protect dollars which pay for flying hours for airmen who are deployed or who are about to deploy.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley

"The curtailments we're looking at now relate to non-mission essential flying. And we'll let the commanders make the individual calls on how best to do that," he said. "This is a large expense for the Air Force, and broadly it's a big chunk of operation and maintenance funding. But we're trying to protect the readiness impacts from flying hour reductions as long as possible. But to come back to the basic point here, the measures we're taking now are the prudent things we can do to mitigate risks. If sequestration hits and the multi-billion dollars reductions fall on the last two quarters of the fiscal year, there is no way not to impact training, flying hours and maintenance, which are things, right now, we are trying to protect as long as we can."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a press briefing last Thursday that funding for readiness functions was at severe risk in a sequestration scenario. He and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey pleaded with Congress to allow DoD time to absorb any impending cuts, rather than slicing $45 billion from all areas of the budget midway through the fiscal year.

"We're basically spending money pursuant to what we had in the FY13 budget. We're spending at this level, and suddenly we've got to achieve this level of savings. So where do we go? We're going to protect the warfighter. We're going to protect those that are involved in Afghanistan. We're going to protect, you know, those areas that we think are critical to our national defense," he said." So where do you go? You go to readiness, you go to maintenance, you go to training. This is where cuts are ultimately made. And when that happens, it makes us less ready. That's really the bottom line."

Furlough plans in the works

On the civilian side of the Air Force manpower equation, Donley did not say how severe he expects civil service furloughs to be, but he said there are no current plans to begin issuing furlough notices to the workforce. Nonetheless, he said sequestration would undoubtedly have a major impact on the Air Force's civilian employees.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

"We do have to pay attention to the planning that would be necessary to do that later, if required because of the various personnel rules that are rightly in place, notifications to unions and all that. So we have to plan for that at some point, just to be prudent in terms of how to approach the third and fourth quarters," he said. "Again, if the sequestration falls on just the last two quarters of the fiscal year, we can't avoid these kinds of impacts. And in this case, I think about 40 percent of our operating account is in civilian personnel. So these things have to be looked at seriously. They cannot be avoided."

With or without sequestration, assuming the Air Force's budget continues to get smaller in the coming months or years, Donley said it's still his service's position that it can't afford to give up any major sets of missions. Instead, budgets are going to determine how many people and how much force structure the Air Force has available to do the job.

"We're going to continue to do global (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). We're going to continue to do global precision attack, mobility, command and control, special operations. All these things remain part of the Air Force's job jar," he said. "The challenge for the Air Force — and not just the Air Force, other services as well — is capacity. What will be the size of the military? We all understand the value of the joint capabilities, which the Air Force, the Navy, the Army bring to the joint team, the importance of that to coalition operations in all its dimensions. We need all of these piece parts to bring together the world's finest military capability. The issue is capacity, how much of it will we have?"

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said one way or another, the service will have to find the money to fully modernize its fleet of aircraft. He said it's been able to get by with service life extension programs for its older fleet of fighters, tankers and bombers. But those aircraft are getting more and more expensive to operate and maintain.

"You know, the first memory I have of my grandfather is him pulling up in front of our house in this '53 Chevy convertible, green and white. It was a sweet car. If we were at Minot [Air Force Base] today I could show you a whole bunch of sweet B-52s. And in 2028 when we deliver the last KC-46 tanker, we'll have about 200 sweet KC-135s still on the ramp. They'll be about the same age then, 60, as my grandfather's car would be today," Welsh said. "The difference is that my granddad's car has an antique auto plate on it. Modernization isn't an option. It doesn't matter if we get smaller. We have got to figure out how to make modernization happen."

Sequestration more likely now than before

But the Defense Department is taking a more cautious approach to modernization as well in its new sequestration guidance. All contracts or contract changes that involve more than $500 million now need the personal go-ahead from Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

It's yet another piece of evidence that after more than a year of dire warnings about the consequences of sequestration, DoD now thinks there's a serious likelihood that it will actually happen this time.

"I'd like to believe that ultimately the Congress will do the right thing," Panetta said last week. "But I thought last year that sequestration was so nuts that there wasn't a chance that it would happen and frankly, there was not a member of Congress that I talked to that didn't think that sequestration was the wrong thing and that it shouldn't happen. But now, my fear in talking to members of Congress is that this issue may now be in a very difficult place in terms of their willingness to confront what needs to be done to de-trigger sequester. And so for all of those reasons, the uncertainty of what'll happen on a (continuing resolution), what could happen on the debt ceiling, if you put all of that together, we simply cannot sit back now and not be prepared for the worst. And that's what we're trying to do."

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