RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Some flying squadrons that support U.S. military operations in Europe and Africa could soon be grounded as U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa face steep spending cuts brought on by sequestration, other budget constraints and unplanned bills.
“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 USAFE-AFAFRICA, said in an interview Wednesday.
The command’s fighter fleet, spread among seven of the command’s 11 flying squadrons, will be the first to slow down operations, Breedlove said. The exception would be combat aircraft that are preparing to go to Afghanistan, are engaged in standing missions, or are 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,” he said.
Plans for the flight reductions, which, Breedlove said, would immediately begin to erode combat readiness, are already under way.
“We have to begin this clock, which starts the changing of our posture,” Breedlove said. “If we were to, say, wait two months to see what happens to begin this change, then we have to recover all the money that we need to recover in what’s left of the fiscal year. It would be a much more drastic problem at that point.”
Flying hour reductions would be taken across the entire Air Force, Breedlove said. “We’re not doing anything in a vacuum.”
Sequestration — the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect March 1 — mean a potential $12.4 billion “topline” budget reduction for the Air Force, according to recent Congressional testimony by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.
The effects of those automatic cuts, coupled with a potential yearlong continuing resolution and an estimated $1.8 billion shortfall in overseas contingency operations funding, are trickling down to USAFE-AFAFRICA. The command, which began the fiscal year with a $1.1 billion budget, faced an initial $300 million budget shortfall, said a USAFE-AFAFRICA budget officer, speaking on background.
USAFE-AFAFRICA expects to be able to absorb about half of that amount through careful budget planning and spending reductions that have already been implemented, such as limiting travel, delaying all but emergency infrastructure repairs and reducing most equipment purchases, ranging from furniture for new dormitories to parts for government vehicles.
But the command is still in the hole for about $145 million, for money spent on unplanned operations during the current fiscal year, such as the Mali mission. That gap could grow since that operation is continuing, the USAFE-AFAFRICA budget officer said, noting USAFE is “cash-flowing” those bills and has asked Air Staff for reimbursement.
The late start in fiscal planning for sequestration only made the hole deeper. The Pentagon strategy was “if we start to plan for this, we’ll be forced to live with it, so let’s not plan for it,” said the budget officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Let’s look at impacts and things that we think will be impacted, but we were not allowed to actually start building budgets” until the end of January.
The command has since made some tough decisions, shelving many of its training and civic engagements with European and African partners, officials said.
Breedlove canceled “two major efforts,” one with an ally and the other, an air refueling exercise “with a nation we want to bring along to be an ally at some point,” he said, declining to name the country.
“Clearly, they’re disappointed,” he said.
“Building partnership capacity was one of the first things we had to take off the plate because we will now use every dollar we can to main the combat readiness of the forces that are in USAFE,” Breedlove said.
“Some of our nation’s dearest commitments (including the newly deployed aviation detachment in Poland) we will continue to do them,” Breedlove said.
The USAFE-AFAFRICA Band may have to cancel upcoming international performances, officials said. The Air Force this week directed Air Force bands not to travel, if they have to pay for it, said the USAFE-AFAFRICA budget officer. But overseas, Air Force bands also serve to foster international relations, and the command is seeking input from U.S. European Command on the potential ramifications of canceling already-scheduled performances.
All official travel must be approved by the major command commanders or vice commanders, a change mandated by the Air Force across the service on March 1.
Breedlove canceled this year’s outstanding airmen of the year ceremony at Ramstein Air Base, a decision “not incredibly popular with our airmen,” he said. Airmen selected from USAFE-AFAFRICA as being the best in their rank and career field would have traveled to Ramstein to be recognized “in front of the command for what they have done,” Breedlove said.
Breedlove expects at some point, base services will either be curtailed or hours shortened. How those changes play out may vary from base community to base community, officials said. USAFE-AFAFRICA officials want to give wing commanders as much flexibility in executing their programs, since they’re in the best position to make those decisions.
“One of the hot-button items is childcare,” Breedlove said. “We’re going to try and not affect childcare, but it will not be inviolate. It may also be affected eventually.”
The Air Force has not decided whether to furlough civilian workers. If it does, it’s expected to affect all but 13 of USAFE-AFAFRICA’s 2,009 appropriated-fund civilian employees, which comprise about half of the command’s entire civilian workforce, Breedlove said.
“We are already a lean organization,” Breedlove said. Airmen “will have to fight harder and harder to try and maintain that readiness as long as they can with reduced money and with reduced teammates, because our civilians are critical to what we do.”
Breedlove worries about the cumulative effect of the continued budget wrangling on the long-term health of the force. “What does it do to … retention and the kind of people that we are able to attract to our Air Force?” Will it give airmen pause to think: “Do I want to associate myself with an organization that is in this stop-start, stop-start, sort of paradigm?”