Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III hold a press briefing about the State of the Air Force at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. on Friday. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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The Air Force is considering cutting flying hours by nearly 20 percent, slashing base improvements by roughly half and other harsh measures ahead of possible massive cuts to defense spending, according to an internal memo.
If Congress fails to agree on how to cut the deficit, the cuts known as "sequestration" will take effect in March.
If sequestration happens, the Air Force might end for all noncombat and non critical flights from late July through September, according to an internal memo from Air Force Secretary Donley to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. In total, more than 200,000 flying hours would be cut.
Other steps include a civilian hiring freeze, canceling air show appearances and flyovers and cutting base improvements by roughly half. The Air Force will also plan to cut aircraft and depot maintenance by about 17 percent and implement civilian furloughs.
The Air Force plans to send guidance to the major commands this week about how to plan for the sequestration cuts, Donley told reporters at a Jan. 11 news conference, also attended by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.
Congress recently voted to delay the cuts as part of a short-term deal that avoided tax increases this year. While the delay is a "positive step," the Air Force remains "deeply concerned" about the possibility of sequestration, Donley said.
"Our nation's ongoing budget gymnastics exert costly consequences upon the Air Force and our sister services, and create an atmosphere of unease among many of uniformed and civilian airmen," he said. "Given that we are now into the second quarter of fiscal year '13, we can no longer live under the uncertainty of sequestration and a continuing resolution without taking action now."
Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta required "prudent planning" for the third and fourth quarters in case sequestration happens, Donley said.
"We've received the secretary's guidance to begin implementing prudent measures that will help mitigate our budget risks to ensure these measures are reversible and recoverable and, to the extent feasible, minimize any harmful effects on readiness," he said. "The Air Force is currently turning the secretary's guidance into direction to our major commands, which we expect to issue in the next few days."
Even if the Air Force implements the guidance, it will not be able to stop all of sequestration's destructive consequences, Donley said.
"If sequestration hits and the multibillion dollar reductions fall on the last two quarters of the fiscal year, there is no way not to impact training, flying hours and maintenance, which are things right now we are trying to protect as long as we can," he said.
Under the measures the Air Force is considering, the operation and maintenance parts of the Air Force would feel the effects most immediately, Donley said.
"I talked about facility sustainment and restoration. I think that is a large part of our operation and maintenance funding to support all the facilities and buildings and we maintain," he said. "We do have to address the civilian personnel aspects. We've talked about civilian hiring constraints, perhaps freezes in some particular areas because civilian pay is about 40 percent of our operation and maintenance budget."
While the Air Force is considering a hiring freeze, it has no plans right now to issue furlough notices to service civilians, he said.
Donley could not say to what extent flying hours might be curtailed.
"We're going to try to protect readiness-related training as far into the year as we possibly can so that the curtailments we are looking at now relate to non-mission essential or non-readiness-related flying and we'll let the commanders make the individual calls on how best to do that," he said.
A Jan. 10 memo from Carter authorized the Air Force to cancel third- and fourth-quarter aviation and ground depot-level activities.
"We will have to look at what the third- and fourth-quarter execution will look like as we go by week-by-week in to assessing how many inductions of aircraft that we take into our depots what the expected output is and what has the least impact on readiness," Donley said. "Our life-cycle management commands and those that work in these areas will be assessing by every aircraft type what the workloads will be and try to figure out how to minimize readiness impacts."
But if sequestration happens, readiness will be hurt, regardless of what the Air Force does, he said.
"There is nothing we can do in the next two months, or in the next nine months - the remainder of this fiscal year - to mitigate the impact of sequestration," Donley said. "It is simply prudent management steps to start a adjusting the way we expend dollars so that we literally do not fall off our own cliff created by this sequestration problem."
At the news briefing, one reporter mentioned several airmen have been complaining online that the budget uncertainty is making it impossible to plan for the future, so they are leaving the service.
But Welsh said he did not think that was a major problem among airmen, despite that they have been at war for more than 20 years since the Persian Gulf War.
"They're not begging to get out the door," Welsh said. "Our retention rates are great; they're still proud of who they are and what they do; they express it every single day, but they want to know what's coming because they are much better informed than when I was a young guy in the Air Force, for sure."