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The long shadow of sequestration could force the service to use involuntary and voluntary measures to cut the force next year, according to the Air Force's top personnel officer.
Lt. Gen. Darrel Jones, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said the service might be forced to use selective early retirements if further force reductions are needed in fiscal 2014.
Military personnel appropriations are exempt from sequestration, so it has no direct impact on end strength for fiscal 2014, Jones told a congressional subcommittee Feb. 28. But that would change if sequestration's $55 billion cuts to discretionary ceilings for defense spending take effect over the next eight years, he said.
"These reductions might drive internal Air Force decisions to decrease force structure, which undoubtedly leads to further end-strength reductions," Jones said in a written statement to the committee.
The service announced at the beginning of February that it needs 3,340 enlisted airmen to leave under voluntary programs to meet its congressionally-mandated end strength of 329,460 by Sept. 30. An additional 4,300 airmen may be forced to leave by May 31 under date-of-separation rollbacks — early outs for airmen who are not likely to re-enlist for a variety of reasons. Accessions for the year also have been cut, Jones said.
The Air Force has used voluntary and incentivized involuntary measures such as DOS rollbacks over the last couple of years to trim the force. Involuntary measures are a last resort, Jones said.
Last year, the Air Force set a goal of separating or retiring about 2,200 airmen under the DOS rollback program. The service separated 2,153 airmen — the majority of them E-4s and E-5s — through the rollback program.
Of the 140 Air Force Specialty Codes that lost airmen last year in the DOS rollbacks, six career fields were hit hardest — materiel management, munitions systems, aircraft armament systems, avionics systems, aerospace maintenance and security forces — with 834 airmen, or 39 percent being told to leave early. Security forces alone lost 395 airmen.
To prepare for sequestration, the service has implemented several short-term measures, including a forcewide civilian hiring freeze. The Air Force has more than 5,000 vacant positions and could release 990 temporary employees, 2,160 term employees and about 260 re-employed annuitants. Air Force officials also are reviewing all temporary duty requirements to determine which ones are most critical and canceling anything that isn't. Flying hours will be limited to only that which is directly related to readiness, and purchases at the unit level must be deemed mission-critical.
Jones said the reduction in flying hours will impact readiness levels in the near and long term because military personnel would see severe deterioration of combat readiness in just two months. It would take six months to regain their current level once funding for flying hours was restored, he said.
"This loss will be felt across our force, but will hit particularly hard at installations where civilian airmen are a majority, supporting critical missions such as initial pilot training and depot maintenance," Jones told members of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee.
The service anticipates there will be acquisition delays because of a lack of manpower, Jones said. He noted the effect on Air Force families; many of the civilian employees are dependents of a service member.
Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified that with sequestration forcing the Defense Department to cut $46 billion from its budget, "there is not a program that is not going to be affected in some way." For DoD, that means that everything from teachers and schools to the base commissary can be affected.
Jones said the Air Force is going to try to maintain child development centers and youth programs, but those programs are often run by civilians, who are facing furloughs.
"It's going to take years to overcome what will happen," Jones said.