A B-1B Lancer, from the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, returns to a mission over Afghanistan on March 29 after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker. (Master Sgt. William Greer / Air Force)
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Syria is heating up, one-third of Air Combat Command is being grounded because of sequestration and no one in Congress is talking about giving the Air Force money to buy more flying hours.
On April 9, ACC started grounding 17 combat-coded squadrons, some of which are currently deployed and will be grounded when they return. That means 21/2 fighter squadrons in Europe have no more flying hours for the rest of the fiscal year, said Col. Jeff Weed, operations deputy director for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces in Africa.
“Consequently, this increases risk on what we ask of these pilots and crews in a ‘fight tonight’ situation,” Weed said in a May 1 email.
The situation became more precarious when the White House recently disclosed that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, prompting some lawmakers to press their case that the U.S. should enforce a no-fly zone in Syria. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has suggested creating a no-fly zone by using Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, but a retired senior Air Force official said that wouldn’t work unless the missiles were placed inside Syria.
Gen. Mike Hostage, head of ACC, however, has warned the longer squadrons are grounded, the more time they will need to get ready.
“It’ll take me 60 to 90 days to regenerate a force that’s been thrown into that dormant status for a two-month period,” Hostage told the Atlantic Council on April 11. “So you’ve got to hope your adversary will give you that 60 or 90 days’ leeway.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, acknowledged sequestration has harmed the military’s ability to react quickly to crises.
“Here we are, 70,000 people have been killed in Syria, million-plus refugees destabilizing the region in Turkey, Jordan, other countries — 500,000 in Jordan alone — and the United States is messing around trying to figure out how we’re going to have enough pilots to enforce a no-fly zone or how we’re going to be able to make sure our Air Force can maintain the proper training in order to execute this particular mission,” Ryan said.
In the meantime, grounded pilots are heading to simulators and their planes are in for long-term maintenance. The B-1B Lancers of the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., returned from a deployment to southwest Asia earlier this year and were grounded beginning April 9. However, on May 1, the 37th was selected to keep flying on a “very limited basis.”
“Flying will be very limited, focusing on a small number of crews required for the 37th Bomb Squadron to maintain a minimum force in combat readiness,” said Col. Kevin Kennedy, commander of the 28the Bomb Wing at Ellsworth.
The Air Force designated a limited amount of funds for flying hours to support priority training missions, ACC spokesman Col. Todd Vician said. “[We] applied these funds against a prioritized list of units to raise readiness levels within available funding. Limited funds continue to be applied to our most critical missions and units deployed or preparing to deploy.”
Another squadron of B-1s at Ellsworth, the 34th Bomb Squadron, is currently deployed and will stand down when they return this summer, said Maj. Matthew Reece, spokesman for the 28th Bomb Wing. Other squadrons, such as the 77th Fighter Squadron, Shaw Air Force Base, N.C., stood down immediately after returning from a deployment.
With each passing day, readiness declines, but not many in Congress hear the clock ticking.
“We’re a long, long way from an operational decision to deploy U.S. forces into or above the airspace of Syria,” said a congressional staff member not authorized to speak on the record. “All bets are off until that [execution] order is written.”
While he has told the Pentagon to look at options for dealing with Syria, Obama made clear he is in no rush to go to war.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used [or] who used them,” Obama said at an April 30 news conference.
But he added it would be a “game-changer” if it were proven Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against its own people.
Sequestration would make it harder to sustain an operation in Syria over the long term, said Rebecca Grant, a defense analyst with IRIS Independent Research.
“The first tranche of forces are going to be ready and available and they’ll maintain their currency,” she said. “The issue comes later if this is a drawn-out operation and we need to dig down and get rotational units over from the states.”
Because a Syria operation would be riskier than the 2011 U.S. and NATO air campaign over Libya, the U.S. may not be able to count on the same type of international support it had two years ago, Grant said.
Syria has kept its contacts with Russia active, so its air defense system is newer than what the Libyans had.
“The worst thing about the stuff they have and about the new ones they’ve added is their mobility,” she said. “Finding them requires having sensors on aircraft close enough to pick up their electronic signatures, essentially.”
During the NATO campaign in Kosovo nearly 15 years ago, the Serbs would keep their surface-to-air missiles turned off so they could not be detected, Grant said.
It is unclear exactly how the Syrians would respond to a no-fly zone, she said. The Syrians could commit all of their air defenses, including fighters and surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down U.S. and coalition aircraft.
“Another option that we’ve seen and is something the Serbians did: to hang back ... try to draw out the fight, try to hide a lot of the mobile missile batteries and try to pluck off coalition aircraft here and there and just sort of survive, hunker down and wear out international resolve,” Grant said.■
Brian Everstine contributed.