More than a dozen Air Force fighter squadrons were grounded Tuesday at U.S. bases around the world, including some in Europe and the Pacific, as the cash-strapped service confronts the effects of steep defense budget cuts brought on by sequestration.
About one-third of active-duty Combat Air Force warplanes were to be grounded in connection with the elimination of about 45,000 flying hours by Oct. 1, according to a news release from Air Combat Command.
The Air Force’s budget for flying hours was reduced by $591 million for the remainder of fiscal 2013, which makes it impossible to keep all squadrons ready for combat, Defense News reported.
“We must implement a tiered readiness concept where only the units preparing to deploy in support of major operations like Afghanistan are fully mission capable,” Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, said, according to the release. “Units will stand down on a rotating basis so our limited resources can be focused on fulfilling critical missions.”
“The current situation means we’re accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur,” Hostage said.
Additionally, the U.S. Navy has canceled the remainder of the elite Blue Angels demonstration team’s 2013 season.
The Blue Angels have performed at air shows around the world for more than 60 years. A spokesman for the Navy said team members would be allowed to fly minimal hours to maintain flight proficiency in the F/A-18 fighter jets, but the six-jet squadron would discontinue group practices for the remainder of the season.
Senior Air Force officials had earlier made clear that the across-the-board defense cuts, known as sequestration, would quickly eat away at the service’s readiness.
“Some of the aircraft that we have that aren’t tied to one of the standing missions right now, they will begin to go into a much reduced fly or grounded rate, possibly as early as the middle of April,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces in Africa, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes in March.
The command’s fighter fleet, spread among seven of 11 flying squadrons in Europe, will be the first to slow down operations, Breedlove said. The exception would be combat aircraft preparing to go to Afghanistan, those engaged in standing missions, or postured to quickly respond to hot spots in Africa, particularly North Africa, where USAFE-AFAFRICA is still supporting operations in Mali.
The same goes for tanker aircraft committed to North Africa, Breedlove said.
“We will be able to keep them in the appropriate mission readiness for a much longer time,” he said.
“We’ll be shortening the flying time of the remaining aircraft.”
Among the Air Force units grounded Tuesday were two F-15 fighter squadrons from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, F-16s from the 555th Fighter Squadron, according to Defense News. The 81st Fighter Squadron, which flies A-10s, is inactivating in May.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.