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Pacific edition, Friday, September 28, 2007

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A proposal floated this week to halt further Air Force personnel cuts in 2008 “makes sense” because of the high level of interaction among the services, the senior U.S. military representative in Japan said Wednesday.

In 2002, Air Force leaders announced a plan to cut 40,000 personnel and use the money saved to improve the service’s aging air fleet.

However, in a Sept. 19 speech at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne announced that the plan “is not working” and further reductions would be unsound.

“Everyone ought to applaud the secretary’s view,” said Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, the U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force commander. “He’s not making statements that apply only to the Air Force; they’re statements that are important to our ability as war fighters across the military.”

The comments also stand as “important reassurance” that the Defense Department’s civilian leaders are committed to maintaining force structure for all servicemembers to be able to perform their duties, Wright added.

“His recent expressed concern ... shows they’re engaged on our behalf,” he said. “They want to ensure we have the force structure we need. Today in Iraq, Afghanistan and even in this region, with large-standing militaries that are modernizing ... all fights are joint fights.”

According to Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, the biggest reason to stop the drawdown is the projected growth of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 members over the next several years. The Air Force must add personnel to support those ground forces, he said.

Officials are trying to decide whether to halt the reductions next year, leaving the Air Force with about 328,000 airmen, instead of going down to 316,000.

But it’s unclear how many airmen will be needed because the Army and Marines haven’t determined how many of their new forces will fill combat roles, and which would be designated as support troops.

Wright said the Air Force, in addition to its own combat operations through bombing and strafing runs, routinely works closely with ground forces.

“That tends to sometimes get lost on those who would critique the roles and missions of the Air Force,” he said. “The interacting of ground and air forces is very common today.”

In South Korea, the 51st Fighter Wing spokesman declined to comment. At Kunsan Air Base, an 8th Fighter Wing spokesman said base officials did not have anything to add to Wynne’s comments.

Queries to the 7th Air Force, headquartered on Osan Air Base, South Korea, went unanswered Wednesday.

Airmen in Japan and Okinawa asked Wednesday generally agreed that halting the drawdown was a good idea.

“We’re trying to do more with less each day and maybe [it] is in order,” said Maj. Mattie Goode, a nurse with the 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Goode said downsizing hasn’t affected her yet, but added that unchecked, personnel reductions will have a “ripple effect” in the Air Force. “I think it’s going to affect all of us,” she added.

Capt. Duke Clementine, also a nurse in the 18th AES, agreed: “I think it’s logical to leave us in place. We’re short-handed now.”

Airman David Timmer, a munitions specialist at Kadena, said a halt in force reductions wouldn’t affect him.

“I’m really not too worried about it because I’m in a critical field,” he said, but added that more airmen means fewer rotations to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Senior Airman Adam Messick, who re-enlisted a year ago, said his occupational field also protects him from personnel cuts.

“Air traffic control, in general, is a stable career,” he said.

At Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, airmen interviewed supported it but declined to give their names out of concern their commanders would disapprove of them talking to media.

“Just stop cutting people. We need people to support other military forces,” said a staff sergeant with the 35th Maintenance Squadron.

A weapons airman first class with the 35th Maintenance Squadron said it was “stupid” to continue with force reductions because the other services need personnel.

“All they’re going to do is go right back in, to the other branches,” he said.

The Air Force should “utilize the people we have” by switching them into needed career fields, he added. “Vehicles run out of gas; we don’t. We keep fighting. Why would you want to get rid of that?”

Stars and Stripes reporters Jennifer H. Svan and Will Morris contributed to this story.

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