Air Force: Budget relief to go into operations and readiness
WASHINGTON — Any fiscal relief the Air Force gets from a budget deal worked out in recent days on Capitol Hill will be plowed back into operations and readiness, while measures to begin reducing force size are expected to remain in place, the Air Force’s top officials said Friday.
The agreement worked out late Tuesday between House and Senate negotiators and approved Thursday by the House would provide the Defense Department more than $30 billion in relief from spending cuts in fiscal 2014 and 2015. Automatic cuts known as sequestration had been scheduled to take about $50 billion out of the planned Pentagon budget in the current fiscal year.
“What it will mitigate for us near term is readiness,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told Pentagon reporters. “It’s at the top of our payback list.”
Since sequestration kicked in early this year, the Air Force has been forced to curtail training and maintenance, as well as shutting down some air wings. Additional budget flexibility from Congress restored some of the cuts, but even if the new budget deal becomes law, the service still is looking at billions in shortfalls in coming years.
“Even with this relief, we will need to re-size the Air Force to one that is smaller than it is today in order to protect investments we need for the future, and to shape an Air Force that we can keep ready,” said acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning.
Fanning is scheduled to resume his duties as undersecretary Tuesday when Deborah Lee James, confirmed by the Senate early Friday as the next Air Force Secretary, takes office.
Welsh and Fanning said that because of continuing budget uncertainty, Air Force still doesn’t know how much end strength the Air Force is looking to cut with new force structure management tools announced this week. Welsh told Congress in September that sequestration could force cuts of up to 25,000 airmen.
The measures, which the Air Force said would begin in June, include both voluntary and involuntary measures aimed at enlisted airmen and officers alike. For instance, the Air Force for the first time will convene retention boards for chief master sergeants and other senior NCOs. During phase one of the program to reduce chief master sergeants, chiefs can apply for voluntary retirement. In phase two, they’ll be selected involuntarily.
Another program, the quality force review board, will look at enlisted members with negative quality indicator codes. An enhanced selective early retirement board, meanwhile, would look at officers below the rank of colonel, lieutenant colonels deferred once for promotion, and colonels with as little as two years time in grade for involuntary retirement.
In all, the Air Force announced 18 mechanisms for reducing end strength Wednesday.
Welsh said the Air Force is announcing the measures now to give airmen time to consider their careers and plan ahead. And he said he hopes a brightening budget outlook could prevent the need for involuntary force cuts.
“We’d love to get all this done with voluntary force shaping measures over a period of time,” he said. “And if we have the leeway based on budget decisions to do that, we’ll go that route.
“If we don’t, and we have to take involuntary measures, I would like everyone to have at least 6 months of time to talk to their family, to think about the impact this could have on them.”