The Thunderbird Air Demonstration Squadron would likely be grounded if sequestration goes into effect March 1. In preparation for massive cuts to the defense budget, Air Force leadership has already called for the cancellation of air shows across the force and any unnecessary travel for training. (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson / Air Force)
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Massive defense spending cuts would leave two-thirds of Air Combat Command's aircraft without enough flying hours to keep air crews fully combat mission ready, and many planes would be grounded due to lack of funding and parts — harming readiness for months or even years, top service officials said.
Known as sequestration, the $500 billion in cuts over 10 years will take effect on March 1 unless Congress can agree on how to reduce the deficit. The cuts will be even more devastating if Congress also passes a temporary spending measure instead of an appropriations bill for this fiscal year.
If the cuts go into effect, the Air Force would have to slash 200,000 flying hours, roughly 33 percent of the remaining flying hours for the fiscal year, said Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer.
Priority funding would go to units in the fight, those training for war and units involved with homeland defense, nuclear readiness and initial qualification training, Spencer said at a Feb. 7 roundtable with reporters.
But two-thirds of fighters, bombers, surveillance aircraft, and command and control planes would run out of flying hours around May 1, so their readiness would start to go downhill, Spencer said.
"If you sit an airplane down and don't fly it, it starts to break," he said. "If you ground airplanes and pilots are not training — and oh, by the way, the maintenance folks aren't training either, because they aren't fixing the planes as they take off and land — and that runs through the summer, you can't jump in that airplane on Oct. 1 and go respond to a contingency," he said.
It would take "several months" to get the airplanes ready and the crews trained — but with less money to do so, Spencer said.
"Sequestration involves a 10-year, $500 billion cut, so it's not like this magic money is going to fall on us if we get sequestered on Oct. 1," he said. "We will have more flexibility to allocate where the money goes on Oct. 1 if we go into sequestration, but our spending levels will still be down."
With readiness levels already "sub-optimal," sequestration would make an existing problem much worse, said Acting Air Force Undersecretary Jamie Morin.
"A good rule of thumb: If you have 90 days of standdown at a flying unit, everyone in the unit is going to be non-mission capable and is going to need spinup to be ready carry out even basic mission requirements," Morin said at the roundtable. "It will take us a long time — multiple months and perhaps years — to get back to where we need to be, even if sequestration was FY13 only, and as Gen. Spencer said, it won't be."
If sequestration goes into effect, the Air Force would have to reduce depot workloads by one-third, causing a backlog beyond fiscal 2014 that the Air Force would not have the money to deal with, Morin said.
The cuts mean the Air Force could not perform "crucial maintenance" on 150 aircraft and more than 80 engines, Spencer said.
"Not only will this have a significant impact on aircraft available to fly missions, it will also drive a ripple effect through our depots that could take five years or more to recover," Spencer said.
To make matters worse, most personnel at depots are civilians, but the Air Force would have to furlough its 180,000 civilians for up to 22 days each if sequestration took effect, officials said.
"The combination of the furlough, the combination of not having airplanes come in, now you've got a depot full of airplanes that you can't move; you got airplanes and engines stacked up; and oh, by the way, as we wind down in Afghanistan, you've got equipment coming back that needs to go into depot — that's a pretty tough situation," Spencer said.
Training and demonstration
Training would also suffer under sequestration. Air Educating and Training Command would also be forced to curtail advanced training courses, and funds for undergraduate flying training would run out in the summer, Spencer said.
Faced with a reduction in money for training, the Air Force would have fewer opportunities to hold exercises overseas and elsewhere, Morin said,
"We do anticipate things like diminishment in our ability to support the [Combatant Commands'] demands for overseas exercises, part of our vital efforts to build partnership capacity around the globe, supporting the whole host of enhanced presence operations," he said. "We carry out with things like theater support packages where we deploy a fighter squadron or another unit into a particular geographic area in order to send signals and create presence and create capability in waiting."
Red Flag exercises scheduled for spring and beyond would likely be canceled, too, Morin said. The Air Force holds several Red Flag exercises each year that involve U.S. and allied aircraft. One is set to go as planned this month.
The Thunderbirds demonstration team likely would be grounded April 1, Spencer said, just as the Navy likely will ground its Blue Angels.
If the sequestration lasts beyond this fiscal year, the military services are going to have to look at cutting end strength, Spencer said. The Air Force already plans to cut its end strength in 2013 by 3,340 active-duty airmen.
"I was involved with some of the initial meetings when the department recommended that the president exempt military personnel from sequestration," Spencer said. "During that same conversation, it was understood that if sequestration is triggered past FY13, it's clear we can't maintain the same number of military personnel — or total personnel that we have, military or civilian personnel — if all the other parts of the military are going to come down."
An Air Force presentation to Congress on the immediate effects of sequestration said that certain missile warning and space surveillance radar sites would have to reduce operations from 24 to 8 hours per day.
Those radar sites are older ground systems, some of which date to the 1950s and 1960s, that are used to augment satellites that can detect missile launches, Morin said.
The cuts would also lead to a 75 percent reduction in the sustainment of the Defense Satellite Communications System, and that would hurt military communications worldwide, according to the presentation.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, issued a statement calling the Air Force presentation on sequestration "highly troubling news."
"Sequestration will affect mission readiness and our deployed personnel around the globe. Civilian furloughs will delay systems testing — ultimately increasing end costs to the taxpayer and the amount of time it takes to deliver equipment to our war fighters," Turner said. "The president's plan to gamble with our national security has turned out to be a losing bet — one I predicted when voting against sequestration in August of last year. The deficit of leadership from the President and the Senate will ultimately be paid back by those who have already sacrificed so much: our men and women in uniform."
If sequestration goes into effect and Congress fails to pass an appropriations bill for this fiscal year, Global Strike Command would see its readiness take a hit, said its commander, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski.
"You can't take the kinds of reductions that we'll be looking at and not have a degradation," Kowalski told reporters Feb. 6.
The biggest impact would be on flying hours, which would be cut by about 20 percent, Kowalski said. The effects would be far-reaching.
"You've got airmen that are continually arriving on base, so if you basically stop flying for three months, you are not only going to lose your aircrew proficiency, you're going to lose proficiency of all those maintainers and as more maintainers show up at the base, brand-new out of tech school, where do you get the opportunity to give them the kind of things that they need?"
In anticipation of sequestration, Global Strike has already reduced the monthly allocated flying hours for its B-2 and B-52 bombers by 10 percent, said command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Angie Blair.
That translates into a decrease of 921 hours for the B-52 and 308 hours for the B-2, Blair said in an email.
Sequestration would also mean that Global Strike Command and the other major commands cannot count on the Air Force releasing funds that are typically held back until the end of the fiscal year, Kowalski said.
"That money is usually the funds that we use for some of our facility repairs and sustainment, so basically a lot of facility work will be limited to safety only going forward," Kowalski said.
Since the government is already being funded by a temporary spending measure, Global Strike Command is seeing its stockpiles of utility uniforms and flight gear depleted, he said. Travel has also been curtailed.
Those who have been in the Air Force for a while have experience dealing with fiscal famines.
"We've been through this before," Kowalski said. "It isn't anything new for our budget folks, and even our commanders have all been through it before."