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Air Force chief says base closures, trimming ranks should be on the table

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III speaks at a cadet call in the U.S. Air Force Academy's Arnold Hall Theater, Oct. 28, 2013.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force's top general wants Congress to examine closing bases and grant him the authority to trim the ranks.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh met with the service's top brass during a weeklong conference at the Air Force Academy that ended Saturday. Facing $1 trillion in Pentagon budget cuts over a decade, he wants the tools used by corporate America to weather the downturn.

"We need help in planning for the future," Welsh said in an interview. "We can adjust to any reality once we have a reality."

While the military has a year left of warfare in Afghanistan, cuts won't wait.

The first set of cuts, about $500 billion, was devised in 2008 by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a way to trim the wartime fat from the military over a decade. The second set — the ones worrying Welsh — were ordered by Congress under the sequestration budget deal. The deficit slashing plan requires the Pentagon to make $500 billion in across-the-board cuts over 10 years, with no leeway to tailor what is trimmed.

"It's a bad business model," Welsh said.

Welsh wants to examine cutting bases and the roster because that's where the money is.

"Those two things make up 55 percent of our overall budget," he said.

Personnel costs for the service's 327,000 airmen lead the pack and have grown steadily for more than a decade.

"We haven't been able to impact the personnel accounts," he said.

Bases haven't been examined since a Base Realignment and Closure round in 2005, and Welsh is joining a chorus of Pentagon brass who want to cut real estate. Welsh envisions a scaled-back Air Force that can conduct its traditional missions in the sky and space and plays a role in computer warfare.

Most of those, he said "are the missions handed us by the president in 1947 and they're still our core missions."

"That's where the priority of investment will go, anything outside of that is at risk."

But the Air Force can't rely on decades-old technology to get the job done as global rivals make advances.

"We can't stop modernizing," he said.

How to modernize the force is a key focus of discussions. Welsh mentioned hypersonic craft, miniaturization and "directed energy weapons," which include lasers, as key areas for research.

"Science and technology is important to a force that was born from technology," he said.

Welsh faces more than budget problems in the Air Force. Under his watch, the Air Force is dealing with a rash of sexual assaults, including a string of allegations against training instructors alleging abuse of recruits at Lackland Air Force Base.

Welsh said the key to tackling sexual assault in the ranks is to change the culture.

"This isn't a surge to solve a problem and then quit surging," he said.

He wants an environment where sexual assault isn't tolerated. But getting there won't be easy.

"As we figure it starts with behavior — respect, inclusion — those things affect a lot of other things," Welsh said.

Welsh doesn't foresee big changes of the Air Force Academy, which he described as a "showplace."

"The Air Force Academy should prepare young men and women to hit the ground running like no place else can prepare them," he said.

Welsh is a 1976 graduate of the academy and served as commandant 12 years ago.

Welsh has held the Air Force's top job for just over a year. He doesn't regret taking the helm during a rough time.

"It's never a bad time to be chief of staff of the Air Force," he said.

But the fiscal road isn't expected to get smoother anytime soon. The military doesn't have a 2014 budget to work with, instead functioning on the same funding program used in 2013 under a stop-gap bill to end the government shutdown.

"The fits and starts are clearly hurting us," he said.

He's hoping Congress can come up with a plan to fund the military that brings stability to the books.

"The same stability will help us balance readiness today with capability in the future, which is the tightrope we're walking right now," he said.
 

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