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Congress, AF finally reach budget compromise

Dec. 21, 2012 - 03:05PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2012 - 03:05PM  |  
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report calls for cutting one A-10 squadron each from the Guard and from the Reserve.
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report calls for cutting one A-10 squadron each from the Guard and from the Reserve. ()

After a year of wrangling between Congress and the Air Force, lawmakers have agreed to a budget that would cut 4,860 airmen this fiscal year — about half as many as the Air Force wanted to eliminate.

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After a year of wrangling between Congress and the Air Force, lawmakers have agreed to a budget that would cut 4,860 airmen this fiscal year — about half as many as the Air Force wanted to eliminate.

The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report calls for cutting 3,340 active-duty airmen, 1,000 airmen from the Air National Guard and 520 from the Reserve. That would restore 5,040 airmen jobs that had been slated to be cut this fiscal year, most of which would have come from the Guard.

Lawmakers also agreed to restore 91 aircraft that the Air Force wanted to retire, including 32 mobility aircraft. The service can decide whether those aircraft will be C-130s or C-27Js. Other aircraft saved include Global Hawk Block 30s.

The House passed the measure Dec. 20 and the Senate followed a day later.

The agreement between House and Senate negotiators marked the end of a long fight that began in January when the Defense Department laid out its plan to cut spending, including cuts to the Air Force.

The Air Force's proposed fiscal 2013 budget called for cutting end strength by 9,900 airmen: 3,900 from the active-duty force, 5,100 from the Guard and 900 from the Reserve. That was part of a broader move to cut a total of 11,600 airmen over five years.

Going into the budget season, the Air Force argued that the active-duty force had borne the brunt of previous drawdowns and could not be cut much further, so most of the cuts had to come from the Guard and Reserve.

But the Air Force failed to understand that all politics is local and the service soon found itself locked in combat with lawmakers who were anxious to protect local National Guard units. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh to work more closely with the Guard during Welsh's July 19 confirmation hearing.

"The Air Force appears to have decided against relying as much on the Air National Guard to provide tactical fighters and airlift capability," Levin said. "The firestorm which erupted from this proposal resulted in Congress stepping in."

Not everyone appreciated Congress stepping in. During a Dec. 18 speech, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized Congress for pressuring the department to keep aircraft and force structure it does not need instead of investing in training and equipment.

"Aircraft, ships, tanks, bases, even those that have outlived their usefulness have a natural political constituency," Panetta said at the National Press Club. "Readiness does not. What's more, readiness is too often sacrificed in favor of a larger and less effective force. I am determined to avoid that outcome."

In November, the Air Force offered to cut 9,500 airmen over five years: 6,200 active-duty airmen, and 1,400 from the Guard and 1,900 reservists, according to budget documents obtained by Air Force Times. That offer did not make it into the bill's final language.

In the end, lawmakers decided to make modest cuts to the Guard and Reserve while maintaining most of the proposed cuts to the active-duty force.

The agreement also prevents the Air Force from retiring its 18 Block 30 Global Hawks in 2013 and requires it to use the aircraft through the end of 2014.

In January, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers that the Global Hawk had become so expensive that it "priced itself out of the niche." Each of the Block 30 aircraft costs about $215 million.

Initially, the Air Force proposed retiring 245 planes this fiscal year:

• 102 A-10s

• 44 C-130HJs

• 30 C-27Js

• 24 KC-130s

• 21 F-16s

• 18 RQ-4 Global Hawks (Block 30)

• 5 C-5As

• 1 E-8Cs

Fighter squadrons

All three fighter units to be cut in the U.S. will come from the Guard and Reserve: An A-10 and an F-16 squadron from the Guard, and an A-10 squadron from the Reserve.

The Guard's 188th Fighter Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., is set to lose all of its 20 A-10s in fiscal 2013. The state's congressional delegation, led by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Sen. John Boozman, said that although no final decisions had been made, they will work to ensure the wing has a "vital mission in the USAF as it is modernized."

The Iowa Air National Guard's 132nd Fighter Wing in Des Moines is set to lose all 21 of its F-16Cs. Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said that the conference committee had gone against the will of Congress in voting to cut the F-16s, and introduced legislation to stop the cuts.

"House and Senate negotiators erred in adopting the White House's wrongheaded plan to cut key Air Force assets without proper justification," Latham said in a statement. "Choosing to eliminate a historically successful and reliable fighter wing like the 132nd is a serious decision and to not weigh the consequences with a cost-benefit analysis and an evaluation of the national security implications is just foolish."

Iowa's Republican Sen. Charles Grassley told the Des Moines Register that there was virtually no chance of reversing the plan.

Iowa and Arkansas, in exchange for losing their F-16s and A-10s, will stand up unmanned aircraft squadrons.

The Reserve 917th Fighter Group at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., also is set to lose its 24 A-10Cs. The Air Force also plans to eliminate an active-duty A-10 squadron, the 81st Fighter Squadron, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Other fighter units originally targeted by the Air Force were spared, however. Both the Michigan Air National Guard's 127th Wing and the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing are set to keep their A-10s under the new plan.

The proposed move of the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson is also on hold while the Air Force puts together an assessment of the move. The proposed move was blocked by Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who went so far as to place temporary holds on two top generals — including Welsh's confirmation as chief of staff — until the service agreed to suspend the move.

Mobility fleet

The Air Force persuaded lawmakers to allow the service to finally decommission its aging C-5A Galaxys, but that can happen only after the Defense Department completes a review of the nation's mobility requirements, according to negotiators.

The service's quest to shut down its fleet of C-27J Spartans — the Air National Guard planes favored by the Army for medium airlift — may finally win approval from Congress. After a contentious battle in the spring, in which lawmakers chastised Air Force leaders for promoting the need for the new planes in 2011, only to return in 2012 and ask to eliminate them, Congress has given the service a choice: Restore either 32 C-27Js or C-130s to meet the airlift requirement.

"We did that in order to provide sufficient aircraft to meet the Army's fixed-wing direct support, time-sensitive airlift mission requirements," Levin told reporters.

MC-12 Liberty

The Air Force, in its original budget proposal, planned to move its MC-12 Liberty squadrons to the Air National Guard in 2014 to replace missions that would be cut, such as the A-10 mission at Fort Wayne, Ind., the C-27J mission in Mississippi and the C-130 mission in Texas.

Now all 42 of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes will stay right where they are - with the active force at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

In May, Carter, the deputy defense secretary, said the MC-12 provided a quick and effective solution to give troops more eyes in the sky, but the Air Force will need fewer of the planes as it develops more sophisticated surveillance aircraft.

The twin-propeller Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s are fitted with surveillance sensors and have an aircrew of four: two pilots, a sensor operator and a signals intelligence specialist.

"With respect to the [assets] that we put together quickly, under the pressure of combat, and which have been so amazingly successful, they do pose a managerial issue for us after the war because they were not essentially designed to last; they don't necessarily have all the features that we wanted in a force that will be an enduring part of the force," Carter said at a May 30 event at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "Liberty fleet is also very much of a quick-reaction type of fleet. These are the little turbo props with a lot of ISR and so forth on them, also essential, and we are going to keep a portion of that fleet," he said.

Guard officials have said that the MC-12, currently providing ISR support in Afghanistan, could be useful in providing intelligence after domestic natural disasters.

EOD teams

The Air Force also originally proposed cutting all 17 Air National Guard explosive ordnance disposal teams, but those cuts were reversed. The idea caused controversy on Capitol Hill when proposed. Some of the EOD teams are the only bomb squads in their areas, and some lawmakers said the Air Force did not think through the effect of those cuts.

"It looks to me like what they did was just hand you a bill to pay, and then you had to make state and local cuts, including bomb squad cuts, to meet those targets," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a May hearing.

Oversight commission

Congress also created the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, an independent group that will look at the appropriation of Air Force force structure. The Air Force lobbied Congress, saying that the service should take charge of the commission, but conference negotiators said that control of the group will remain on Capitol Hill.

The commission had been a focal point of state leaders who lobbied Congress on the budget. The bipartisan Council of Governors repeatedly criticized the Air Force for not including governors and adjutants general adequately in the budgetary process, and the commission is seen as a way to improve the relationship moving forward.

"It will be critical that the Guard is represented on this commission," the National Governors Association said in a statement. "Governors' key recommendation has been and remains putting a process in place to incorporate state perspectives on the Guard and improve the budget process to avoid these conflicts in the future."

Working behind the scenes

National Guard proponents who had adamantly pushed for a freeze on all Air National Guard cuts came out largely in support of the new plan. The National Guard Association of the U.S. said the bill has both wins and losses for the Guard.

While the Guard will lose experienced A-10 and F-16 fighters and maintainers, the compromise will keep a larger number of guardsmen on duty.

That tradeoff might have swayed congressional leaders, who initially seemed unwilling to approve a new fiscal 2013 budget plan. The Air Force, however, was successful in winning approval for its revised plan from a small number of House negotiators, and that made the difference, NGAUS president retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett said.

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