Spending cuts have forced a “readiness crisis” in the Air Force, grounding a dozen combat squadrons, cutting training and maintenance, and threatening modernization of an aging fleet, top Air Force leaders said Friday.
“The ill effects of sequestration are already taking a toll on our Air Force,” Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said in a press briefing broadcast from the Pentagon.
“… The readiness hole we have been trying to dig out of just got deeper, and we are facing a readiness crisis from which it will take many months to recover.”
Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh addressed issues confronting the military branch in a “state of the Air Force” address..
The Air Force faces more than $10 billion in spending cuts and another $1.8 billion shortfall to war time funding between now and September. Sequestration, which began March 1, set in motion $37 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget this year.
Within the next decade, the Department of Defense faces nearly half a trillion dollars in spending reductions unless Congress reverses course or pares back the scope of the cuts. The military had agreed to an additional $487 billion in less spending over a decade before the latest reductions.
Sequestration has been felt at Wright-Patterson Air Force base where 13,000 civilian employees face 11-day furloughs set to begin July 8 once notices are sent out next month.
Welsh said Air Force readiness levels have declined steadily for a decade. The impact of the combined spending cuts has “driven us over the readiness cliff.”
“Our readiness continues to decline even while calls for potential no-fly zones or air policing operations in response to Syrian violence are reaching a new crescendo,” he said.
Despite the monetary hurdles, the service branch has kept top acquisition priorities to buy the Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the development of a new long-range strike bomber.
Budget cuts this year forced the Air Force to buy five fewer F-35As, Welsh said. Even after the Air Force purchases 179 KC-46 jets by 2028, the service will have replaced just a third of an aerial refueling tanker force that will be 65-years-old at that time, he said. The last KC-135 tanker now in use rolled off the assembly line in 1965.
The leaders also said they need solid budget figures from Congress to chart future needs.
“All of us are hoping for a budget solution that provides at least an ability to plan ahead and then we can mitigate most major concerns,” Welsh said.
Looking ahead, Donley said, “if there continues to be resistance to force structure changes, to base closures, to constraining growth in compensation” disproportionate cuts could hit modernization programs. The Air Force has the oldest aircraft fleet in its history with an average age of 25 years.
Congress has balked at another round of domestic base closures, known as Base Realignment and Closure, the Pentagon has wanted. A House Armed Services readiness subcommittee passed a bill this week rejecting an Obama administration plea for more closures.
“We do have currently an impasse with Congress on the way forward for BRAC, so that needs to be worked,” Donley said.