The 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, is one of many squadrons that will get more flying hours if the Air Force's request to reprogram money is permitted. (Staff Sgt. Cynthia Spalding / Air Force)
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The Air Force could use limited funding to make five fighter squadrons and two E-3 Sentry squadrons fully mission capable, but would not have enough to return grounded squadrons to the air.
On May 20, the Defense Department submitted a request to Congress for authority to reprogram $9.6 billion in fiscal 2013 funding as a way to cover shortfalls. The Air Force’s share is about $1.8 billion, and the service would mostly focus those flight hours on training in the Pacific.
The Air Force grounded 13 combat-coded squadrons in April when it lost $591 million — 44,000 flying hours — to sequestration. The service planned to distribute 241,496 flying hours to keep other squadrons at tiered readiness, with some remaining combat-ready and others at a reduced readiness level called “basic mission capable.” Some of the squadrons were to dial back their flying hours through July, then return to combat readiness status.
The Air Force hopes to get back money for some squadrons that were to be reduced to basic mission capable.
A preliminary list of squadrons that would be affected are:
■F-22s with the 27th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
■F-16CJs with the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.
■F-15Cs with the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons at Kadena Air Base, Japan.
■F-16CJs with the 14th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
■E-3B/C Sentrys with the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron at Kadena.
■E-3B/C Sentrys with the 962nd AACS at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The squadrons could change depending on funding, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.
“We’re aggressively managing, literally by squadron day to day, as money is either reprogrammed, made available, we find savings in working capital funds, anything we can do to find money to put back toward readiness, we’re doing,” he said at a May 24 press briefing. “And so the number of squadrons will adjust itself up and down a little bit as we go.”
There will not be enough resources in the reprogramming request to return all of these squadrons to the air, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said.
Air Force officials are reviewing flight costs on a daily basis in each squadron to find ways to address readiness shortfalls. As the year progresses, the number of squadrons affected could fluctuate, but “not in a meaningful way unless money appears,” Welsh said.
The concern over grounding the squadrons is that pilots and crews will lose their currency at a time when the combat air community is already stretched. Welsh said it could take six months to a year to return to readiness levels once that currency is lost.
“We’ve been flying continuous combat sorties for over 22 years now. We’ve been forced to put full-spectrum training on the back burner to support the current fight,” he said. “And we’ve also been trading readiness for modernization for the past several years. And the Budget Control Act exposed the management risks that we’ve been accepting to do that, and now full sequestration has driven us over the readiness cliff.”