The return of sequestration would impact “every part” of the Air Force while the service branch has called for an end to downsizing the number of airmen in ranks and pushes to restore readiness and modernize an aging fleet, the service branch’s top civilian leader said.
In an exclusive interview Thursday with the Dayton Daily News, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said sequester-imposed spending caps may cut $10 billion from the budget the Air Force wants.
The secretary toured Wright-Patterson on Thursday and addressed more than 200 Air Force Institute of Technology master’s degree and doctoral graduates and more than 1,000 others gathered at a ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“Ten billion is a big chunk of money and it would mean every part of our Air Force would be touched in some way,” she said in an interview. “It’s impossible to predict what that means for Wright-Patterson,” but it could strike programs like advanced engine research and raise the potential for a return of furloughs, she said.
In 2013, thousands of civil service workers were sent home for days at Wright-Patterson because of furloughs officials blamed on sequestration. Without action from Washington, sequestration is due to return in October, the start of the 2016 fiscal year.
“I certainly will be a strong vote that (furloughs) will not remain on the table, but of course this is now in the hands of Congress,” she said. “We’re working with Congress actively to try and get our point across. But I think those furloughs were very devastating, disturbing, really had a bad impact on morale of our civilian workforce and I think we should not return to that.”
In her speech to AFIT graduates, James said they will confront the challenge of fiscal austerity and defense cutbacks, new global adversaries like the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia in Ukraine, a rising China in the Asia-Pacific region and uncertainty in the geopolitical world.
“Confronting and overcoming challenges is our collective responsibility,” she said.
In an interview with this newspaper, James called for an end to the downsizing of the number of airmen in the Air Force, now the smallest since its inception in 1947 at around 310,000 active-duty uniform personnel. The service branch has proposed a “slight increase” in the number of active-duty, Reserve and Air National Guard airmen.
“We should go no lower and enough is enough when it comes to downsizing,” she said.
The Air Force has prioritized modernizing aircraft and nuclear forces, and investing in cyber and space operations, science and technology development, and training and readiness, she said.
She emphasized a priority of “making every dollar count” while budgets get tighter.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a letter addressed to James that criticized the Air Force for not meeting a Defense Department directive that called on each service branch to reduce spending at headquarters by 20 percent and to strive for a goal of a 20 percent reduction in government civilian staff.
The Arizona Republican senator said the Air Force had “pursued a shell game” that moved money to fund the same positions that relocated elsewhere in the Air Force, such as re-designating the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency the 25th Air Force and setting up a new Installation and Mission Support Center. He urged the service branch to reduce headquarters staff.
James said Thursday the Air Force had achieved a 20 percent spending reduction on headquarters in one year rather than five, as the directive allowed. “And the key word there is spending because of course, with our debt, our deficit, what we’re all trying to do is become more efficient and save money,” she said. “The way we did that was a combination of things.”
Those measures impacted both civilian employees and contractors and reassigned some military personnel from administrative tasks to other military missions, she said.
“There were a series of actions that we took in order to achieve these savings,” she said. “So what we’re going to do is offer some additional briefings to try to clarify this on Capitol Hill.”
The secretary backed a new round of Base Realignment and Closure to cut excess infrastructure. One Air Force official recently said in testimony to Congress the Air Force had 30 percent more infrastructure than it needed.
“We do have excess capacity and the fact that we are paying money to maintain that capacity means that money can’t be spent on people, and readiness and modernization so we would prefer to free up those dollars and put them toward more important uses,” James said.
James said the Air Force will rely more on the Reserve and Air National Guard in the future. It has sent more F-15C Eagle fighters to the Air National Guard, more cyber operations in the Reserve and moved more space-oriented missions to both sister branches, she said.
“We’re big believers, we’re total force people, so I think you’re going to see more of that in the future,” she said.
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