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Air Force outlines sweeping budget cuts

Wright-Patterson could impose a hiring freeze and furlough civilian workers, among other impacts, if congressional leaders don’t resolve impending budget cuts.

Air Force leaders will cut flying hours by nearly 20 percent and prepare for a possible end to all noncombat or noncritical flights from late July through September if Congress can’t agree on a budget and billions of dollars in automatic cuts are triggered, according to the Associated Press.

In an Air Force internal memo obtained by the Associated Press, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley laid out broad but grim steps the service will be taking in coming days and weeks to enforce a civilian hiring freeze, cancel air show appearances and flyovers, and slash base improvements and repairs by about 50 percent.

Beyond those immediate actions, Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said in the memo that the service will make plans to chop aircraft and depot maintenance by about 17 percent and initiate widespread civilian furloughs if there is no resolution to the budget issue by March. The cut in flights would reduce flying hours by more than 200,000, the memo said.

The impact on Wright-Patterson hasn’t been released, but more details on the service wide reductions could be outlined within days, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told the Dayton Daily News. “We can’t make plans until we find out what the guidance is,” she said Friday afternoon.

Wright-Patterson is the largest single site employer in Ohio with more than 29,700 military and civilian employees, according to a 2011 base analysis. The base, home to key commands such as the Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory, has crucial roles in acquisition, research and development, evaluation, testing, and aerospace medical and post-graduate education.

For months, the Defense Department and defense contractors have confronted “significant uncertainty,” said Joseph Zeis, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president and chief strategic officer.

Furloughs, or unpaid time off for civilian workers, of up to a month would have a significant impact on base operations. “The impact of that, the programs that are executed, grind to a much, much slower pace if not a halt,” he said. “The impact is not minor by any means.”

The Coalition has contacted Ohio’s congressional delegation to emphasize the potential impact on Wright-Patterson if budget negotiations fail to avert massive spending reductions, said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal government programs in Washington, D.C.

“We are all doing what we can do to avert these cuts,” he said.

Dick Honneywell, Coalition vice president of aerospace, said the region is well positioned to diversity into commercial aerospace development with a highly skilled workforce and research and development and manufacturing facilities because of its ties to Wright-Patterson. “It’s not all dark clouds there,” he said. “There’s some long term potential and benefits.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders have been predicting dire consequences if Congress fails to pass a new budget and automatic cuts take place. The Pentagon is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect in early March if no agreement is reached.

In a briefing with Pentagon reporters, Donley said the Air Force is not targeting a particular amount in savings to achieve, but is taking steps to curtail spending where possible at this point without having an irreversible effect on the service and not impacting the nation’s ability to wage war.

The Air Force accounts, Donley said, will bear about up to 20 percent of the Defense Department reductions.

Asked about Panetta’s directive to possibly cancel ship, aircraft and depot maintenance in the third and fourth quarters of this fiscal year if there is no budget solution, Donley said the Air Force will review each type of aircraft and its requirements.

“We’re trying to take prudent actions now that are as reversible, recoverable as possible,” Donley said. “We’re trying to protect maintenance for aircraft and weapons systems sustainability as long as we can into the fiscal year.”

Welsh said commanders will make decisions on how best to curtail flying and that the Air Force will try to protect training flights as long into the year as it can.

But, he noted, “if sequestration hits and the multibillion-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.”

The flying reductions aren’t expected to prevent the appearance of the Air Force Thunderbirds at the Dayton Air Show in June, said Brenda Kerfoot, air show general manager. However, she said she didn’t know if it could mean no Air Force flyovers or demonstrations of single aircraft performers.

“Our plan is to have a full show and if (additional flyovers) happen that’s a bonus,” she said.

Officials said that civilian pay is about 40 percent of the Air Force’s operations and maintenance budget. Panetta has made it clear that if there is no budget agreement, the civilian workforce will face sweeping cuts and unpaid furloughs.

There are about 800,000 civilians across the Defense Department, and nearly 1.4 million in the active-duty military. The Air Force numbers about 330,000 active-duty service members and about 143,000 full-time civilians.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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