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Air Force leaders detail force cuts, defend religion policies

WASHINGTON — Air Force leaders detailed future force cuts and defended the service’s religious accommodation practices after coming under attack from conservative lawmakers at a congressional budget hearing Friday.

When presenting the fiscal 2015 budget request and the Future Years Defense Program last week, the Air Force announced that it wants to eliminate the entire A-10 close air support fleet and the U-2 spy plane fleet, and significantly reduce the number of F-15 and F-16 fighters, and MQ-1 drones, because of budget constraints imposed by Congress. Pentagon leaders want to use the resulting savings to invest in modernization and readiness.

The budget request must be approved by Congress. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said a congressional decision to protect these programs would necessitate cuts in higher-priority programs, and lead to imbalances in the force. As an example, Welsh said that saving the A-10 would force the service to cut back on the number of F-35, F-16 and F-15 fighters.

James and Welsh told members of the House Armed Services Committee that the following additional platform reductions would be necessary if further budget cuts imposed by sequestration are allowed to go into effect in fiscal 2016:

  • The retirement of up to 80 more aircraft beyond the nearly 500 scheduled for the chopping block.
  • The elimination of the KC-10 tanker fleet.
  • Deferred upgrades to the Global Hawk and retirement of the Global Hawk Block 40.
  • Slowed purchases of the F-35 multi-role fighter.
  • A 20 percent reduction in the number of combat air patrols by Predator and Reaper drones.
  • Efforts to invest in the combat rescue helicopter force, the next-generation JSTARS aircraft and a replacement for the aging T-38 trainer aircraft would also have to be reconsidered.

James warned that a failure to change the law and avoid sequestration, which would force the Pentagon to accept $115 billion less than it has requested over the next five years, would inhibit the military’s ability to fight high-tech adversaries such as China and could lead to losses of aircraft and crew members in future battles against advanced enemies.

The Air Force leaders defended Pentagon proposals for changes in military pay and benefits. The Defense Department wants to do the following to save money:

  • Limit pay raises.
  • Reduce the basic housing allowance.
  • Reduce commissary subsidies.
  • Manage Tricare costs by requiring greater cost-sharing.
  • Reduce funding for military family support programs.

Those changes would have to be approved by Congress.

James argued that these changes wouldn’t impact the ability of the service to recruit and retain high-quality airmen. She said Air Force pay is competitive with the private sector and the service is not seeing retention problems, especially at a time when the service is slashing manpower levels. Recruiting is so strong that recruiters are turning people away at the door, according to James.

The Air Force is providing voluntary incentives for airmen to leave the service, but if that doesn’t yield sufficient reductions in manpower, involuntary programs will be necessary, James said.

The Air Force leaders came under fire from Republican lawmakers over a recent incident at the Air Force Academy in which a cadet was told to remove a Bible verse from a hallway whiteboard outside his room.

“I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” the verse reportedly read.

The verse was taken down after Military Religious Freedom Foundation director Mikey Weinstein complained about it after being contacted by 33 people at the academy — including cadets, faculty and staff — according to a press release by MRFF.

Weinstein contends that the Air Force Academy is hostile to people who aren’t fundamentalist Christian.

Several members of the committee argued that the removal of the verse constituted a violation of the cadet’s religious freedom, and suggested that the Air Force was ignoring the Constitution.

“We’re worried that this idea in the law that [imposes some religious restrictions aimed at maintaining] good order and discipline is now becoming an excuse for political correctness. And I think that very quickly tramples the First Amendment rights of certainly our airmen,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “We’re seeing this in Air Force far more than other services.”

“It’s a balancing act. It’s balancing that free expression of religion with the needs of the military and not giving the appearance or an actuality of forcing anything [on airmen].” James said

Welsh pushed back strongly against the accusations that were being leveled.

“I know all kinds of people at the Air Force Academy … who would disagree with your assessment of there being a problem with religious persecution at the Air Force Academy … You have to get the facts right on every one of these cases and try and stay unemotional until you know what happened,” he said. “The single biggest frustration I’ve had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution inside the United States Air Force. It is not true. We have incidents like everybody has incidents. We investigate every one of them. We’ve asked every chaplain in our Air Force if they know of these cases, [and] they say no.”

Fleming cited a case reported by Todd Starnes, a Fox News columnist, in which a group trying to distribute Bibles at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Were turned away by base officials.

“I would not believe an article from Mr. Starnes,” Welsh said. “I know there are cases where he’s not had his facts right in his articles.”

Welsh told another lawmaker that servicemembers have a right not to be proselytized to by religious airmen.

“You have every right to your beliefs and to practice your faith freely. If someone asks you about your faith, tell them everything about it. [But] if they don’t ask you, don’t assume they want or need to know.”

James agreed to provide the committee with an Air Force version of events surrounding the incident at the Air Force Academy within 10 days, and to explain Air Force policy on religious expression and how it applies to that situation.

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes
 

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