Air Force looks to boost combat readiness

The Air Force will spend more money to boost combat readiness if Congress passes a budget to reduce the impact of sequestration, but the military branch is still exploring how additional dollars might impact spending, the service branch’s top leaders said Friday.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh briefed reporters on the state of the military service in an annual address.

Welsh said the potential of partial relief from the budget sequester, or automatic spending reductions, won’t eliminate the need to reduce the size of the Air Force.

“We can’t afford to operate and maintain the size of the Air Force we have today,” he said.

The Air Force on Wednesday announced it will cut 900 civilian positions and an undetermined number of military jobs service-wide in 2014 because of budgetary woes. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has not yet been able to determine how many of those reductions will hit the base, spokesman Daryl Mayer said in an email Friday.

Welsh said he didn’t think the force management guidelines would change, but didn’t rule out that it might change within months. The House passed a two-year budget plan that would restore about $22 billion in sequester reductions to the military if the Senate passes the measure.

A new Air Force civilian leader will face budget and other questions soon. Deborah Lee James, a former defense firm executive, is expected to take over as Secretary of the Air Force on Tuesday, replacing Fanning, who will return to his former job as under secretary. The Senate confirmed James’ nomination Friday.

Fanning, a Centerville High School graduate, has temporarily served in the lead role since June, when former secretary Michael B. Donley stepped down.

Fanning said the nation rightly expects defense spending to shrink as the nation winds down a wartime footing in Afghanistan after ending fighting in Iraq. But the immediacy of sequestration cuts have been destructive and forced the service to make choices it otherwise wouldn’t, he said.

While Congress has resisted cutting military bases and opposed cuts to personnel, readiness and modernization programs faced the biggest threats, the two leaders said. This summer, the Air Force temporarily grounded some aircraft squadrons and halted or reduced training and furloughed most of the civilian workforce, including 10,000 workers at Wright-Patterson, because of the sequester.

A second civilian furlough struck 8,700 Wright-Patterson employees in October because of a 16-day federal government shutdown due to a budgetary stalemate in Washington.

“This has resulted in a profound impact on our readiness,” Fanning said, adding that the Air Force has faced an ongoing decline in readiness for 20 years. “Tiered readiness models simply don’t work for the Air Force.”

The military must be able to respond to a crisis around the globe rapidly, he said.

Welsh said sequestration has forced the dilemma of choosing between near-term readiness and the long-term modernization of the fleet, and the Air Force has attempted to strike a balance between the two.

Even so, he reiterated the service’s commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and a new long-range strike bomber.

“Our legacy fighters against the new generation fighter will not survive,” he said. “Operationally, it’s just a fact.”

Welsh said he does not back cutting purchases of F-35s coming off the production line over modernizing existing combat aircraft. Reducing purchases would increase the per-unit cost, he said, which has declined with the addition of allied nations buying the controversial plane.

“This is not a good time to walk away from the F-35 program in any way, shape or form,” the four-star general said.

Neither Welsh nor Fanning ruled out a new combat search-and-rescue helicopter if money is available.

“The mission is part of the fabric of our Air Force,” Welsh said. “The mission is not going anywhere.”

The Air Force reportedly has considered pulling the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet — a 1970s-era tank-busting subsonic plane flown extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan — out of the fleet to cut costs, but the two leaders did not indicate that would happen soon. Language in the 2014 defense authorization bill prevents any spending to retire the A-10.

Welsh said the F-35 eventually would replace the A-10 in the close-air support mission to defend troops on the ground.

“It’s like the B-52,” he told reporters. “We can’t rely on the B-52 for the next hundred years.”

The military will look for redundancies to eliminate among its missions, such as in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, to pare Defense Department costs, Welsh said.

He also said money concerns have been the biggest topic airmen have asked him about, as they worry about the future of their retirement plans and the effects of sequestration.

“It’s all the details about money,” he said. “I don’t want them to worry about that. We’ll do everything we can to take care of them in that regard. The nation is not going to let them down in those ways.”

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