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Air Force planning for possible sequestration cuts in 2016

The Air Force could cut beyond the thousands of airmen and hundreds of aircraft the service plans to draw down if sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016, according to a budget document.

While the Air Force and the Defense Department received some spending relief from the scale of the cuts originally expected in fiscal year 2014, and hopes for the same with the proposed budget in 2015, “a lot of uncertainty remains” in 2016 and beyond, said Kathy L. Watern, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for cost and economics.

Watern, who spent two decades of her civilian career at Wright-Patterson, spoke to dozens of members of the Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association on Monday at the Hope Hotel and Conference Center.

Under the full impact of sequestration, the Air Force could withdraw the entire KC-10 Extender refueling tanker fleet of 59 jumbo jets. It also might reduce the number of RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 40 spy drones, buy fewer fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, bypass modification of fourth-generation fighter jets, such as the F-16, and spend no money on a next-generation jet engine, according to the Air Force.

Watern said the service branch anticipated solidifying what might happen in 2016 in the weeks ahead.

A baseline $109.3 billion proposed budget in 2015, compared to an enacted baseline budget of $108.8 billion this year, would cut the number of airmen by 20,400 and civilian jobs by 2,700.

By 2019, the Air Force could retire 500 aircraft among the three components of active-duty, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. The Air Force has put a priority on new aircraft and restoring readiness it says was affected by sequestration.

The military wants to retire the U-2 spy plane and withdraw the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet, better known as the Warthog, which gained fame in the Persian Gulf War and has ardent backers in Congress and among ground troop advocates. The Global Hawk would replace the U-2.

The F-35, KC-46 Pegasus, and a long-range strike bomber have top billing. Additional priorities would replace the aging T-38 Talon jet trainer aircraft, pursue a next-generation E-8 Joint Stars aircraft, buy more sensors and munitions, and schedule more training exercises and invest in space-based systems.

The Air Force operations and maintenance budget would decline to $44.3 billion from $45 billion this year. In two major areas affecting Wright-Patterson, the Air Force-wide acquisition budget could rise to $18.5 billion next year compared to $16.8 billion today, and spending on research, development, test and evaluation would remain flat at $16 billion. The base is headquarters for the Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Watern said much of the increase in the acquisition budget is for new aircraft, including 26 F-35s at a cost of $4.2 billion, and seven KC-46 tankers for $1.5 billion.

The budget is part of a proposed $495.6 billion Pentagon spending plan proposed by President Barack Obama. Obama has asked Congress to approve a $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” to recover from sequestration cuts. The Air Force share would amount to $7 billion spent to restore readiness, buy two more F-35As, and modify aircraft, among other priorities.

The Air Force has initiated early retirement incentives and other force reduction measures prior to involuntarily eliminating positions, Watern said.

In a move to reign in compensation costs, the Pentagon has proposed a 1 percent pay raise for service members and a pay freeze for generals and admirals. Following a Pentagon directive, the Air Force will cut headquarters staff by 20 percent.

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