WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III discussed the damaging effects of sequestration with members of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations’ Defense Subcommittee Feb. 27.
“Your Air Force is working hard to meet the combatant commanders’ most urgent needs,” James said. “But a budget trajectory that results in sequestration simply will not allow us to sustain this pace. We will either break or we won’t be able to execute the Defense Strategic Guidance. We cannot do it.”
Sequestration-level funding will force the service to divest fleets of aircraft, including the KC-10 Extender. Total force flying hours will be cut as well as weapons systems sustainment, ranges, simulators and high-end training exercises, such as Red and Green Flags.
To avoid some of these cuts, the Air Force has proposed a fiscal year 2016 budget that is about $10 billion more than current funding levels, which will allow the Air Force to meet combatant commander requirements while investing in the service’s top priorities.
“Even if we get that (additional funding), it doesn’t solve every ill,” James said. “There’s a lot of good in our budget, but there’s also hard choices.”
Some of those hard choices include divesting the A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet, slowing the growth of compensation and requesting another round of Defense Base Realignments and Closures.
“The most pressing issue of all (is) more than half of our combat Air Force is not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight,” she said.
To balance the readiness of today with the modernization of tomorrow, the Air Force’s proposed budget requests an increase in end strength to 492,000 active-duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen. The extra dollars will also be invested in mission-critical infrastructure; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; vital space programs; cyber teams; the nuclear enterprise; and the KC-46 Pegasus, F-35 Lightning II and the Long-Range Strike Bomber.
“My pride in this Air Force and the Airmen who give it life hasn’t changed. My concern has,” Welsh said. “The capability gap that separates our Air Force from others is narrowing, and as it does, the asymmetric advantage that airpower provides the United States military is shrinking.”
The general explained modernization isn’t an option — it must be done, and he and the secretary asked Congress to help by lifting sequestration.
“Our short-term readiness recovery will stall, our long-term infrastructure investment will remain a dream, we’ll be forced to recommend dramatic fleet reductions and modernization will be further delayed, allowing our adversaries to be able to further close that capability gap,” he said. “You understand it’s an ugly picture. We just want to make it clear.”
The Air Force recognizes the financial strain on the U.S. government and has cost savings throughout the proposed budget to alleviate the strain.
“We get it in the United States Air Force that we have to treat the American taxpayers’ money as precious and we can’t afford to waste a single dollar of it,” James said. “We’re working hard to make every dollar count.”
The Air Force is driving steadily toward auditability and it has taken a 20 percent reduction in funding at headquarters levels. The Airmen Powered by Innovation initiative has also turned up savings, and the Air Force is still looking for the best ideas from Airmen who do the job every day.
“We understand that we must be part of the nation’s solution to the debt problem and we’re ready to do that,” Welsh said. “We need your help in some areas so that we can be ready for today’s fight and still be able to win in 2025 and beyond.”
Both James and Welsh agree America’s Airmen are what makes the Air Force what it is today, and they have been performing to the highest level, but they are being spread too thin. The operations tempo, coupled with decrease to critical infrastructure that gets Airmen and units combat ready, have taken their toll on Airmen and their families.
“If sequestration remains the law of the land, it will get worse,” James said. “Sequestration needs to be lifted permanently for the whole of government.”