Airmen from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., board a KC-135 Stratotanker bound for training in New Mexico. All nonessential travel for training, conferences and air shows has been canceled. (Master Sgt. Roger Parsons / Air Force)
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Implement civilian hiring restrictions, including a hiring freeze, "immediate elimination" of temporary employees and not renewing term-hire employees who are not mission-critical.
Look for reductions in wartime funding requirements that will not harm wartime operations.
Cancel all temporary duty that is not mission-critical, such as attending or hosting conferences, staff assistance visits and training seminars.
Cancel flying "not directly related to readiness," such as air shows, flyovers and familiarization rides.
Reduce ongoing and scheduled studies not ordered by Congress or mission-critical.
Limit supply purchases to "essential FY13 consumption (e.g., flying hour bench stock)" and stop minor purchases that are not mission-critical, such as furniture, information technology refresh and unit equipment.
Defer nonemergency facility sustainment, renovation and modernization projects such as carpeting, painting and remodeling but continue with compliance/life/safety projects.
Try to limit contracted work to fiscal 2013 projects such as base maintenance and custodial contracts.
Wounded warrior programs
Family programs — "to the extent feasible"
Programs most closely associated with the new defense strategy — "to the extent feasible"
The major commands are still digesting guidance on how to cut costs amid the fiscal chaos on Capitol Hill, but airmen are already feeling the pain.
On Jan. 14, the Air Force directed the MAJCOMs to start a series of cost-saving measures in case Congress allows massive cuts to defense spending, known as sequestration, to go into effect in March and if lawmakers fail to pass an appropriations bill for this fiscal year.
The measures include reducing flying hours, implementing a civilian hiring freeze, deferring repairs and renovations that are not emergencies and canceling all travel that is not mission-critical. Air Force officials said it was too soon to comment on how each MAJCOM will be affected.
"Given these sources of budgetary uncertainty and a projected [fiscal year 2013] $1.8 billion shortfall in Air Force funding for overseas contingency operations, it is prudent to implement immediate actions to reduce our expenditure rate and mitigate budget execution risks," according to a memo from Acting Air Force Undersecretary Jamie Morin and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer.
Because the Air Force is limited in what cuts it can make to spending, such as civilian pay, other accounts would take a disproportionate hit if sequestration went into effect, Morin said at a Jan. 15 Air Force Association event.
Lawmakers also need to pass an appropriations bill, otherwise new construction projects for this fiscal year will be on hold, Morin said. Those projects include an F-35 simulator, hangar and modular storage magazines at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
"In a large, complex enterprise like the Air Force, losing six months' time on military construction projects can mean the difference between being able to execute a bed down for a new weapons system and not," Morin said.
The ongoing debate about how Congress will resolve sequestration and other budget crises has become a major distraction for enlisted airmen, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy.
Armed with smartphones and other devices, airmen and their families are voraciously devouring the latest developments on the fiscal crisis, Roy told Air Force Times in a Jan. 16 interview.
"When they're worried about a retirement system rather than focusing on that training and the missions, that's a distraction in my mind," Roy said. "We simply don't need airmen focused on that. We need them focused on the mission and adding value to that mission."
Cuts hit home
But with all unnecessary travel curtailed, some airmen will miss planned conferences and training — and that can hurt.
An Air Force medical provider told Air Force Times that he may have to stop seeing patients because all continuing education travel has been canceled, so he will have difficulty getting the required amount of training to renew his license.
The Air Force is looking at online courses and other alternatives to accommodate medical providers' continuing education, said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. But professional meetings are much better and more likely to be state-of-the-art than online training, said the medical provider, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.
"And it is anywhere from 15 to 25 hours of continuing education at one time," he said in an email. Online courses are often one or two hours, and they have to be paid for, as well."
For one flight-test engineer, the new cost-saving measures mean he will have less time to talk to pilots and navigators because TDY has either been canceled or it must be approved by a lieutenant colonel or higher.
"Instead of conducting testing that would normally require 20 hours, we now have to prioritize and trim the list to fit 12 hours, said the Air Force Materiel Command civilian, who asked to be identified by his nickname "Uber" out of fear of reprisal.
Talk of furloughs is a distraction to his fellow civilians, Uber said in an email.
"They often ask: ‘How do I rack and stack with the mid-level engineers who have more experience than me? Am I a target for layoffs?'" he said.
Gen. William Shelton, head of Space Command, said his command will be "fine" with the cost-saving measures, but he warned the sequestration issue must be resolved.
"We will not be able to keep up the same spending rate through the year," Shelton said at a Jan. 17 breakfast with reporters.
‘Workplaces start to deteriorate'
While the cost-saving measures should be manageable in the near term, problems will arise if the fiscal crisis drags on for months, said retired Gen. Roger Brady.
"We've been through this before a couple of times in my memory and what happens is: Workplaces start to deteriorate, housing starts to deteriorate, roads and streets start to deteriorate," said Brady, former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "So if you don't do maintenance, pretty soon people are working in a less than optimum environment."
That would pose a major problem for the Air Force, which has a reputation of taking care of its people better than the other services, he said.
"There comes a point where, if people find themselves working in environments that are not being taken care of, it's hard for you to continue to convince them that they're in a first-class Air Force," Brady said.
Right now, the Air Force will likely delay routine maintenance until problems arise, such as a leak in the roof, he said. But by that point, the problems will cost more to fix.
Brady is also concerned about how aircraft will hold up during the reduced flying hours. The longer planes are on the ground, the greater the chance they will develop problems like leaks.
"Airplanes are made to fly, and when they sit, they don't do well," he said.
The looming threat of sequestration and other potential budget cuts "begin to create the conditions for hollowing out the force," said retired Lt. Gen. Dick Newton III, executive vice president of the Air Force Association.
During President Carter's administration, the Air Force was under severe budget pressure, forcing commanders to "cut corners" in terms of supporting installations, said Newton, whose father was a wing commander at the time.
"That can have some very broad implications," he said. "If you are not able to maintain either your flying training, with regard to aircraft, but if you're also not able to put the adequate resources into maintaining your installations, that has an impact over years because it begins to snowball on you."
If the Air Force is forced to cut programs such as child care, that could prompt airmen to leave the service down the road, Newton said. Meanwhile, the threat of cuts is taking its toll.
"While we've been at war for going on 11-plus years, to put our men and women in harm's way — and certainly those who support our men and women — with this uncertainty with regard to budget, I think is a major challenge for Air Force leaders; not only the major air commanders but down to our [noncommissioned officer] and senior NCO leaders who have to lead and manage our airmen on our Air Force flight lines," Newton said.
The Air Force is already trying to use teleconference more as a substitute for temporary duty, said Master Sgt. Jason Schaub, of the 618th Air and Space Operations Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
"I'm kind of a realist: I kind of look at it as everybody has to do their part to help conserve," Schaub said of the cost-saving measures.
Fewer people, more work
If the Air Force has to furlough civilians, it would mean an increased workload for airmen, but they would step up, Schaub said.
"I've been in 17 years; I've seen the budget go all over the place. I've seen the Air Force go all over the place with how it reacts to these things, and we always come out as a very well-trained, highly motivated, supremely capable force," Schaub said.
But if Congress allows sequestration to happen and passes a temporary spending measure in lieu of an appropriations bill, operating budgets would fall by more than 20 percent, according to a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Training will be reduced by almost half of what we were planning just three months ago," the letter says. "We are also now planning for the potential to furlough up to nearly 800,000 defense civilians who are essential to critical functions like maintenance, intelligence, logistics, contracting and health care. We will also be unable to reset and restore the force's full spectrum combat capability after over a decade of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan."
At a Jan. 10 news conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that when he was in Congress, "governing was good politics."
"For whatever reason, that concept has been lost," he said. "And I think that there's an attitude that governing isn't necessarily good politics, that gridlock and confrontation is good politics. And I think we pay a price for that. And that's what's happening."