Two of the Air Force’s most contentious budget proposals, getting rid of excess bases and retiring aging aircraft, will be back on the table in next year’s budget, despite congressional votes just a month ago that rebuked both requests.
President Barack Obama’s budget for the Defense Department, which is scheduled to come early next month, will violate the $523 billion sequestration cap for 2016. But even at that higher level, the five-year spending plan won’t have room for excess bases or the current complement of aircraft, and officials want to hold the line on any further personnel reductions, said Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary. So the service will run last year’s rejected ideas up the flagpole once again.
“We are going to be asking the Congress of course to eliminate sequestration, as well as to allow us to get rid of excess base infrastructure. We’ll be renewing that as well,” James told reporters Jan. 15. “And we will once again ask for the authority to divest some of our older aircraft in order to free up money to plow back into people, readiness and modernization. Keeping in mind, as we’ve said many, many times, if sequestration does return in FY ’16, it will have very, very serious and devastating effects on some parts of our Air Force.”
On the topic of excess infrastructure, the Air Force thinks it’s in worse shape than the other military services. Its most recent analysis, conducted in 2004, estimated it had 24 percent more capacity than it was using, and the Air Force has shrunk significantly in the intervening decade to the smallest size in its history. While the Navy and Marine Corps believe their basing infrastructure is more in line with their current force structure, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed last week that another round of base closures remains a high budget priority for DoD as a whole.
“We know this is not an easy thing for the Congress to take up and to deal with. But the secretary wants very much to work with the Congress as we move forward to try to get another round of BRAC,” he said. “It really is necessary, and it’s time. It’s overdue, actually.”
Consolidations, not closures
Members of Congress who oppose another round of BRAC frequently peg their opposition to the notion that DoD should first look to close bases overseas before Congress starts making decisions that could have domestic economic impacts. But it’s possible that those arguments will be undercut this year by this month’s announcement that DoD will close 15 facilities in Europe, saving an estimated $500 million per year.
The Air Force was particularly affected by those European reductions.
The largest closure announced was the Royal Air Field at Mildenhall in the United Kingdom.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said both the cost and the military value of each installation — a similar calculus to what would be used in a domestic BRAC — played into the decision.
“The infrastructure consolidations in Europe are just that — consolidations. It’s not giving up mission capability,” he said. “There was an opportunity to actually save money over time in a fairly significant way … it will be much more efficient over time, and it will pay for itself in a pretty expeditious way. Mildenhall is a base closure because the cost of updating Mildenhall over time, with very old infrastructure that hasn’t been maintained well over the last 30 or 40 years, is excessive compared to the combat capability we get from the operations that go on the base. The good news is that our partners in the U.K. have done a lot of downsizing and soul searching on how they’re going to operate under a lower top line themselves for the last 10 years in the defense business, and were very supportive on this, although neither one of us really likes giving things like this up.”
The “We still want it, but we can’t afford it” formulation is the same basic framing the Air Force puts around its insistence that it needs to divest itself of some of its legacy aircraft. Welsh and James did not specify exactly which airframes they’ll propose for retirement in the 2016 budget, but it’s widely assumed that the A-10 attack aircraft again will be on the short list, and Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that DoD’s position on the A-10 hasn’t changed since last year.
But that position is likely to be challenged by A-10 defenders during DoD’s posture hearings after the budget rollout, since the Air Force still is using the aircraft in the current fight against Islamic State militants. The A-10 is responsible for more than one out of 10 of the airstrikes that have happened over the last several months in Iraq and Syria.
Room, resources for the F-35 needed
While Congress prohibited the Air Force from retiring the A-10 in last month’s budget votes, it also found enough money to keep them operating without robbing the service’s military readiness accounts. Welsh and James said they’re grateful for that.
But Welsh said in the long run, keeping the A-10 in the air is unsustainable despite the emotions surrounding the Air Force’s proposals.
“It’s an emotional issue inside the Air Force too,” he said. “I would be disappointed if the people who flew the A-10, if the people who train with the A-10 weren’t emotional about this. They love their airplane. They should love their airplane. But for us, it’s a sequestration-driven decision. We don’t have enough money last year or this coming year to fund all of the things that we currently have in our force structure. But if we have the A-10 and there’s a conflict that we can use it in appropriately, we should absolutely use it. It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10. It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat 10 years from now.”
The Air Force favors eliminating entire fleets of aircraft rather than simply slicing back the overall size of each type in its inventory because divesting an entire platform also eliminates the logistics infrastructure that goes along with it. And while the A-10 is among the Air Force’s cheapest combat aircraft in terms of ongoing operational costs, keeping it alive means retaining a trained force of maintenance personnel to attend to it.
That fact is especially important as the Air Force starts to bring the F-35 into its inventory, officials said. The service plans to declare initial operating capability on the Joint Strike Fighter by the end of next year, but that new aircraft will also need maintainers, and Welsh said they’ll have to come from elsewhere in the service’s workforce.
“We are now into the second set of solutions [to the F-35 maintainer problem] beyond what we thought was the best military approach, because we haven’t been allowed to take that. We don’t have 1,000 extra maintenance people waiting for a job. They’re doing other work,” Welsh said. “We have to get them into a new platform by taking them out of something else. It’s the only way to develop them or hire contractors or delay [initial operating capability]. Those are the three choices, and there’s some combination of those things that have to happen. We don’t like the option of delaying IOC. So we will do everything we can to come up with other creative solutions that will be painful in different ways to try not to do that.”
Last year’s Air Force proposals to close bases and retire aircraft were met with immediate resistance on Capitol Hill — so much so that the votes that finally rejected them last month appeared to be almost a foregone conclusion by the end of last year’s posture hearings. But James said in a new Congress, from the Air Force’s perspective, there’s at least some reason to hope that things will be different this time.
“There’s new members of Congress, and we have to educate them,” James said. “We have to continue to explain the position about why we need to not only invest in today, but also invest in tomorrow. If we had a lot more money — I mean a lot more money — we could do it all. But of course, we’re not going to have a lot more money. So we have to make choices. And that’s what we’re paid to do. We’re paid to make some tough choices in this environment. And so we will explain that story to the members who we have known for some time as well as to the new ones.”