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Budget calls for fewer airmen, more hardware

Apr. 14, 2013 - 10:24AM   |  
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The Air Force plans to cut fewer airmen in fiscal 2014 than it wanted to in this fiscal year; however, larger budget cuts loom on the horizon.

Right now, the Air Force’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for cutting its end strength by 2,640 airmen, of which 1,860 would be active-duty airmen — reducing the active-duty end strength from 329,460 this year to 327,600 by Sept. 30, 2014. Another 300 would come from the Air National Guard and 480 from the Reserve, budget documents show.

While the airmen cuts are far below the 9,900 airmen that the Air Force initially planned to cut in fiscal 2013, the proposed budget does not take into account the massive cuts to defense spending known as sequestration, which took effect March 1.

The Air Force’s budget for fiscal 2013 took a $10 billion wallop, leading the service to slash flying hours, ground squadrons, cancel nonessential travel and take other measures to eek out an existence until October.

But sequestration will last 10 years unless Congress and President Obama can reach an agreement on how to cut the deficit. So far, partisan differences over taxes and spending have made a “grand bargain” elusive.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told lawmakers that despite significant investment in the service’s combat aircraft, only half of the service’s fleet has met acceptable readiness standards in recent years. The drop in readiness has gotten worse with sequestration-mandated cuts, and the service needs the resources to meet current and future needs.

“We must improve readiness to prevent a hollow force,” Donley said at an April 12 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

The Air Force’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget calls for $114.1 billion in spending, budget documents show. For this fiscal year, the Air Force asked for $110.1 billion, but it ultimately got roughly $102.8 billion.

Next fiscal year, the Air Force plans to purchase 50 aircraft, including 12 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, three CV-22B Ospreys and 16 variants of the C-130. The service also would spend $1.6 billion on developing the KC-46A tanker and $400 million on the future Long Range Strike Bomber.

“The KC-46 is our highest modernization priority, and will ultimately replace a third of our current tanker fleet, most of which is almost as old as Secretary Donley. Hard to believe, I know,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers. “The tanker fleet puts the global in global vigilance, global reach and global power. It provides strategic options for our nation. We simply must modernize it.”

The proposed budget also calls for more personnel at the Air Force Targeting Center and invests in Network Centric Collaboration Targeting capabilities, budget documents show.

Under the spending proposal, the Air Force would buy seven satellites next fiscal year: five Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and two GPS III satellites. The Air Force is moving forward on plans to include additional entrants in the EELV process as a way to lower the price of the launches, Donley said.

“EELV has been a very successful program, but our concern has been that it is growing in cost,” Donley said. “We now have potential alternatives that are coming along.”

The proposed budget calls for 1.2 million flying hours. That is slightly more than the Air Force budgeted for this fiscal year, before sequestration prompted the service to cut more than 200,000 flying hours. With the mandatory cuts of flying hours in fiscal 2013, the Air Force needs to protect the training flying hours for pilots entering training on specific weapons systems, Welsh said at the April 12 hearing.

“In ’14, we must prioritize funding for training flying hours,” Welsh said.

The Air Force also would spend $1.15 billion on military construction for the active-duty force, compared to $388 million for this fiscal year.

One project is the new Distribution Common Ground System building at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., to collect and distribute intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, budget documents show. The building will support more than 200 operators, maintainers, support personnel and mission systems.

Pay and allowances

The proposed budget calls for $14.4 billion in pay and allowances for enlisted airmen and $6.7 billion for officers, according to the budget documents. That includes $42.6 million in incentive pays and $341.8 million in special pays for enlisted airmen and $206.2 million in incentive pays and $303.6 million in special pays for officers.

For this fiscal year, Congress appropriated $40.9 million in incentive pays and $439.7 million in special pays for enlisted airmen and $218.4 million in incentive pays and $327.2 million in special pays for officers.

The figures for this fiscal year include wartime funding. The Defense Department expects to submit its wartime funding budget within a month.

So far, the only force structure change planned for fiscal 2014 is cutting 11 C-21 jets used for VIPs, such as general officers, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Matthew Hasson.

“The exact locations, and associated manpower affected, are still being determined through the fleet management process,” Hasson said in an email.

For fiscal 2014, the Air Force will try to minimize involuntary separation measures to make its congressionally required end strength, he said.

“Given the current set of fiscal challenges, we will continue to assess the need to pursue voluntary and involuntary force management actions to meet future authorized end strength levels,” Hasson said.

The Air Force’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget would double the amount of money allocated for separation pay for officers to $122.8 million, budget documents show.

The increase in separation pay for officers is to help the Air Force meet congressionally mandated officer end strength, Hasson said. “This requested increase will provide the Air Force the greatest flexibility to exercise a full array of force management authorities in [fiscal 2014],” he said in a written response to questions.

Up to 4,300 airmen may be forced out of the service by May 31 under date-of-separation rollbacks so the Air Force can make fiscal 2013’s end-strength requirements.

But the Air Force also needs to retain airmen in stressed career fields, which are undermanned and are hard to fill due to operational demands and high deployment rates, budget document show.

Right now, about 17 percent of active-duty airmen serve in stressed career fields, such as airfield operations, intelligence, civil engineering and public affairs career fields, budget documents show.

The top stressed career fields for enlisted airmen include airborne cryptologic linguists/ISR operators, operations intelligence and fusion analysts. For officers, they include helicopter pilots, special tactics and intelligence.

Sequestration fallout

The Defense Department is conducting a strategic review due at the end of May that will look into the possibility that sequestration remains law, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

If sequestration lasts into next fiscal year, it’s going to hurt, said Maj. Gen. Ed Bolton, deputy assistant Air Force secretary for budget.

“We’re not going to get out of this problem by reducing a few slots here or a few slots there,” Bolton told reporters at an April 10 news briefing. “It’s going to have to take some significant change, and so a slight trimming is not going to be the answer.”

Bolton declined to speculate how sequestration would affect the Air Force’s plan to reduce end strength.

“I would have predicted we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I’d have bet $1,000 this wouldn’t have happened. So I’m the wrong person to speculate.”

Sequestration has already had an effect on aircraft procurement, Bolton said. The Air Force wanted to buy 19 F-35 joint strike fighters this fiscal year, but now it will have to reduce that amount by three to five aircraft.

If sequestration lasts into next fiscal year, the Air Force would once again have to dial back its F-35 purchases, Bolton said.

“So there’s significant impacts as a result of sequestration that permeate into ’14 that this budget does not fix,” he said.

Even though Congress has required the Air Force to keep using its Block 30 Global Hawks through the end of 2014, Bolton said the service’s long-range plan is to stop using the aircraft, which cost about $215 million each. Donley said Air Force leaders reconsidered the directive from Congress to keep the Block 30, but reiterated that the U-2 is the better platform and the Global Hawks should be cut.

“The U-2 has better operational capability, and the money it would take to bring the Global Hawk Block 30 up to that level of operational capability is in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

———

Staff writer Brian Everstine contributed to this report.

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