Air Force officials say their current projections show it will be 2023 before the service fully recovers from serious degradations in combat readiness. Officials said those problems were not caused entirely by sequestration, but the automatic budget cuts dramatically increased their severity.
With the relatively-sudden onset of the first round of budget cuts in 2013, the Air Force grounded 31 squadrons of aircraft for more than three months, deferred depot maintenance, slashed facility upkeep by half and furloughed the vast majority of its civilian employees. A subsequent funding boost from Congress helped matters, the Air Force says. But a year later, only half the air units that were affected by sequestration have gotten back to the proficiency levels they had before the cuts kicked in. And Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said those levels were already too low.
“The things that affect readiness are much more complex than just flying hour money each year,” he told the House Armed Services Committee Friday. “There are things like investment in training range space, in threat systems to train against on those ranges, on live virtual, constructive simulation capabilities as we get more modern aircraft, where the only place you can re-create a real threat environment is in a simulator because you can’t afford to do it in the real world. Those things have not been funded over the last 10 to 15 years because we have been tied up spending money on operations and supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is time for us to get back to full-spectrum training and readiness, and that’s what’s going to take us 10 years, to re-build those things that are behind the power curve, especially as we bring on an airplane like the F-35.”
More aircraft on chopping block
The Air Force’s readiness recovery would take even longer if it goes back to sequestration-level budget figures in 2016 and beyond, Welsh and Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, said in written testimony for Friday’s hearing.
The budget submission DoD sent to Capitol Hill this month includes $7 billion for the Air Force under the White House’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, much of which would go toward readiness and modernization. If, as senior lawmakers already have predicted, Congress declines to approve that fund, officials say not only would readiness suffer, but the Air Force would have to eliminate even more fleets of aircraft than it’s already planning to, including the KC-10 refueling tanker.
Welsh and James said the readiness problems may have been masked by the types of wars the Air Force has been fighting for the past dozen years. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was able to dominate the skies without a credible threat from other air forces. Welsh said the Air Force’s preparedness for a high-end fight with a capable adversary is much lower than it ought to be.
“I’m not comfortable with our current state of readiness to be able to do anything,” he said. “Right now the Air Force’s combat coded-squadrons are about 38 percent ready, compared to our standard of fully combat ready. To me, that’s unacceptable.”
With or without sequestration, Air Force officials say it’s clear that they are going to need to continue the process of shrinking the service, both in terms of personnel and in terms of airframes. While it can save some money through efficiencies and better management, Welsh said that won’t cut it.
“It’s not going to be $12.8 billion a year, it’s just not going to be. And the only way we keep the Air Force safe and ready to react at whatever size we can be is by sizing ourselves to a size we can afford to keep that way, which means we must get smaller if the funding stays low,” he said.
The service’s current plans call for a reduction of 20,000 airmen and 500 aircraft over the next five years. Those savings, the Air Force says, need to be plowed into making sure the remaining force is fully trained and ready to deploy at any given time.
James said if it’s not, the potential consequence will be a greater number of military casualties.
“The thing that I worry about most, going back to sequester, has to do with the preparedness and the readiness of the airmen and the military at large, because what all of us want is we want to make sure they have the training and the equipment so that they can do their job and stay safe if we send them into harm’s way,” she said. “And in some ways because our Air Force has done such a fabulous job over the last 25 years, we’re the victim, a little bit, of our own success because, thank god, we haven’t lost that many people, and thank goodness, there haven’t been that many accidents. But I worry that if the monies get tighter and tighter and tighter, we may see more fatalities and more lost aircraft. And that’s something that you can’t capture until it happens, and I hope it doesn’t happen.”
The Air Force acknowledges that it’s already accepting risk through the controversial budget decisions it’s announced, like the full divestment of the A- 10 attack aircraft fleet, the relocation of missions from certain bases to different locations and other cutbacks to existing platforms. Welsh said the Air Force is already unable to meet the requests of global combatant commanders in several areas, most prominently, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“ISR, I believe, is clearly the first category that I would maintain capability in. We do not meet the combatant commanders’ requirements today, and as we divest more, we will not meet them by a wider margin,” he said. “And then we have to be careful about divesting our fighter fleet too much because we are at our requirement today. We are going to go seven squadrons below our requirement with this budget, and anything further just puts us farther away from what we have agreed as a department is required to meet the standing war plans of our combatant commanders and their standing annual demand.”
But Welsh cautioned members of Congress against reflexively protecting programs that happen to have an impact on their districts. He said the Air Force’s budget was made up of nothing but bad options. And unless Congress changes the existing budget caps, restoring funding to one program is going to mean reduced readiness somewhere else.
“We have cut about 50 percent of our planned modernization programs because of the impact of the sequester-level funding over time. What we have done is funded things that are absolutely required to make aircraft viable in the near-to mid- term against the threats that we know are there,” he said. “Anything that is nice to have or should have is off the books for now. We will revisit this every year as we look at what the threat is doing and what we have to have to keep airplanes like the F-16 viable against the threat as it emerges. We simply don’t have the money to do it all.”