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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Gen. Mark A. Welsh III apologized Tuesday to Air Force personnel who were furloughed this year as a result of sequestration-forced budget cuts.

“I don’t care whether you wear a uniform or wear a suit to work,” he told airmen and civilian personnel at an all-call at Yokota Air Base during his first visit to Asia since becoming Air Force chief of staff a year ago. “You’re all airmen in our Air Force.

“[T]hose of you who do wear a suit to work and have been furloughed this year, I apologize. I’m sorry that we as a nation didn’t figure out a way to do this better … For the last three years we haven’t given you pay raises while your military compatriots got pay raises, and now we’ve furloughed you.”

Nevertheless, the Air Force is prepping for more ways to trim the budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, if sequestration remains in place.

“Right now we have to assume worst case, so we assume the sequestration law will stay in effect … and that it will continue for 10 years,” Welsh said during an interview with Stars and Stripes before the all-call. “If we assume that that’s the case, then due diligence on our part would require us to build a plan, which we’re doing, for what that means the Air Force would look like in 2023. It would look different than what we’d hoped it would look like.”

Welsh said the uncertainty created by sequestration, which he called a “brutal mechanism” because it requires across-the-board cuts, is causing the biggest headache for Air Force planners. That uncertainty has prevented the Air Force from working with a “predictable topline number” for the 2014 budget.

“We can get smaller,” he said. “We can operate for less money. We can do fewer things, which is going to be one of the outcomes of this.”

And if that’s what policymakers ultimately decide, then the Air Force will execute the policy, he said.

“That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now, trying to put together a predictable plan so our people do know that we value their performance, we do care about their future, we will take care of their families and we will challenge them to be the best in the world at what they do. That’s all they’re looking for. If we can’t do that, I’d be worried about keeping them. And that would be catastrophic.”

Sexual assault in the military has been the other key problem since Welsh became chief of staff in August 2012, just as the military came under increasing pressure by Congress and the public to address the problem of sexual assault in the ranks.

“I spend more time on that topic than anything else I spend time on,” he said. “Most of the time is spent trying to make sure everyone in the Air Force understands that we have a problem, that our commanders understand that they are part of the solution, that our senior enlisted leaders understand that they’re part of the solution.”

Welsh remains adamantly opposed to the idea, proposed by some in Congress, of removing authority over prosecution of sex crimes from the chain of command.

“In my mind, the solution to this problem depends on commanders and supervisors,” he said. “You can’t fix it from outside the chain of command.”

Welsh said the Air Force has instituted some “game-changing” programs to deal with the problem, such as the Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel, which provides lawyers specifically for sexual-assault victims.

“That’s a very important part of the solution, but not the only part,” he said. “We have to figure out how to, somehow, prevent this behavior. Can you screen for predatory behavior? Can we retrain our people from the day they walk into the service to fully understand the importance of the strength of diversity, the importance of inclusion, the value of respect for every airman?”

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.
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