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USAF secretary: Sequestration would pose huge challenge for service

Apr. 12, 2013 - 05:10PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Top Air Force leaders had a simple message Friday for lawmakers: The service’s latest budget plan is sufficient — but that soon will change unless sequestration is turned off.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told the House Armed Services Committee the service’s 2014 budget request is “relatively stable” when compared with its 2013 funding level.

While Donley warned of aging fleets of fighters, bombers and cargo aircraft, the air service is seeking a funding hike topping 10 percent in 2014. If enacted, the Air Force’s budget would swell by 11 percent to $144.4 billion next fiscal year.

The understated Donley cast his budget request as a status-quo plan. Yet, the Air Force’s spending plan seeks a larger year-to-year funding increase than is being sought by the Army and Navy. It also would be a larger one-year hike than the 9 percent increase being requested for the Pentagon’s “defense-wide” account.

The secretary cast his service as being in good shape despite the $46 billion cut the Pentagon is enacting this fiscal year.

But Donley bluntly told the House panel the Air Force would hit rocky times in fiscal 2014 unless Congress passes a major fiscal package that turns off the twin $500 billion, decade-spanning defense and domestic sequestration cuts.

That’s largely because of the age of the service’s fleet, but also because he expects “the demand for the Air Force to remain stable or increase” as the military places more emphasis on the vast Asia-Pacific region, while also remaining busy in the Middle East.

HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., expressed concern about what he feels is a lack of urgency among House members to replace the sequester cuts with other deficit-paring measures. (Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Defense News on Wednesday that the amount of bipartisan discussions in the Senate to do just that is “positive.”)

The service this week announced it will ground 17 combat air units because of the sequestration cuts. Such moves have led to a deterioration in readiness “across the Air Force,” Donley said.

Unless the sequestration cuts are turned off this year, service officials may have to begin canceling or delaying a long list of planned maintenance work on its aircraft.

And Donley warned it could take “two or three years to recover from that ... maintenance backlog.”

The service’s modernization programs were largely unscathed in its 2014 budget plan.

Donley said programs such as one to field a new tanker aircraft and a long-range bomber remain top service priorities.

On the latter, Donley was asked whether new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel supports that program.

“I believe that he does,” Donley replied, but noted he has not chatted with Hagel specifically about the on-again-off-again-on-again bomber program.

“We need to get on” with the bomber program, Donley said, because it has been a core Air Force mission “since our inception.”

Regarding the service’s proposal to terminate the Global Hawk Block 30 program after about 20 more models are purchased, Reps. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told Donley they believe the program should be kept alive and more Block 30s purchased.

But Donley countered that the service’s venerable U-2 spy planes have more capability, and migrating sensors to the Block 30s would be too pricey and take too long.

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