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Budget era could mean fewer Air Force programs

Top Wright-Patt general waits for budget answers

The Air Force Materiel Command’s top leader said it’s unlikely the military branch will launch the number of new programs it once did in an era of budget austerity and with the impact of potential automatic, across-the-board defense cuts still unknown.

Those impacts won’t be known until Congress acts to resolve budget sequestration, said Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, AFMC commander.

“Certainly, there’s some disappointment at not reaching resolution and having another two months of uncertainty,” she said.

The Air Force’s first female four-star general spoke about the fiscal woes and other issues facing the Air Force in an interview with the Dayton Daily News at AFMC headquarters at Wright-Patterson.

The 1976 Beavercreek High School graduate who was in the Air Force Academy’s first graduating class of women leads a command that manages a $60 billion budget, or 42 percent of the Air Force’s spending. AFMC employs nearly 82,000 employees in acquisition, research and development, test and evaluation and sustainment at nine major bases. At Wright-Patterson, AFMC has a workforce of nearly 14,000, and nearly 10,000 are civilian employees.

Wolfenbarger said the defense industry and the military’s workforce understand the nation’s budget woes “and I think it is absolutely appropriate that the Department of Defense does its part to help our country through this fiscal crisis.”

Even so, she said, “that means that there will be in all likelihood fewer new programs that will be launched relative to perhaps where we have been in the past in this country and the budget authority that has been afforded to the Department of Defense in the past.”

Congress reached a tax deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” last week, but delayed by two months the start of sequestration. If the reductions aren’t stopped, the U.S. military confronts nearly $500 billion in budget cuts starting March 1 over a decade. Those reductions would be on top of $487 billion the department will absorb the next 10 years.

In the interim, the Air Force continues to operate under a continuing budget resolution that expires March 27.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned the threat of sequestration would be devastating to the military.

Under a reorganization last year, AFMC eliminated 1,000 civilian jobs and saved more than $100 million throughout the command, Wolfenbarger said. The restructuring into a five-center construct includes the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, both headquartered at Wright-Patterson.

“My belief is that at this point we are hoping to stabilize in terms of the numbers of people that we have in the command to execute our critical missions, but I would tell you that with the threat of sequestration and other future budget reductions it is difficult to stipulate with great certainty that there won’t be future changes in that regard,” she said.

President Barack Obama has exempted military personnel from the budget sequester, but not the Department of Defense’s 800,000 civilian employees who could face furloughs or unpaid time off the job. Because the president has exempted uniform service members, the across-the-board cuts could reach about 13 percent, according to Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

“Many of the programs at Wright-Patterson are operating under appropriations that were provided under previous years and therefore are not subject to sequestration,” Thompson said. However, pay for civil servants at the base could be impacted almost immediately because of furloughs, or unpaid leave, he said.

“When March comes, we don’t know whether Congress will raise the cap on the national debt, we don’t know whether it will provide funding to avoid a government shutdown and we don’t know whether it will prevent across the board spending cuts called sequestration,” he said. “The simple reality is Gen. Wolfenbarger and the rest of the Air Force don’t know how much money they are going to have for the rest of the year.”

The mandate of the across-the-board cuts means every procurement program, every research and development project and every Defense Department civilian employee would be affected if sequestration happens, Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments in Washington, D.C., said in an email Friday.

Facing flying the oldest aircraft in its history, the Air Force has made it a priority to protect the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 air tanker and a yet to be developed long-range strike bomber.

Wolfenbarger called those programs “important, pivotal” to the future of the military branch.

The Air Force has added new capabilities to weapon systems to keep them potent to new and emerging threats, she said.

The Air Force and AFMC have confronted the issue of weapons affordability as the costs for some programs have risen substantially. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, for example, estimated last summer the F-35 would cost nearly $396 billion, a 42 percent rise in the price tag since 2007.

As part of an overall “continuous improvement” strategy, the Air Force plans to have “mature technologies in hand” before giving the go-ahead to proceed on some future programs, Wolfenbarger said.

“This business is very complex,” she said. “I think there are unknowns that you always discover as you execute to a program plan.”

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