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Amid drawdown, budget cuts weigh on Air Mobility Command

General fears loss of expertise

Sep. 19, 2013 - 10:48AM   |  
Gen. Paul Selva, commander of Air Mobility Command, says that sequestration budget cuts could slow the careers of aircrews.
Gen. Paul Selva, commander of Air Mobility Command, says that sequestration budget cuts could slow the careers of aircrews. ()
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The maintainers, aerial porters and aircrews of Air Mobility Command confront a major role in moving troops and equipment out of Afghanistan next year as part of the drawdown of NATO forces. Their commander, meanwhile, is worried about the effects of budget cuts on their careers.

While troops and equipment are being moved out of Afghanistan by both air and ship, Air Mobility Command is ready in case everything has to be taken out by airlift, said AMC commander Gen. Paul Selva.

“I don’t anticipate going to air-only,” Selva said in a Sept. 5 interview. “Having the option to do both gives us a safety valve, basically, if we face a challenge on any of the surface — over-the-road — methods of transportation or rail out of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan is a landlocked country, so one way to move cargo by sea would be to use ports in Pakistan; however, security and political challenges may prevent that from being feasible. NATO could also use rail lines that traverse the former Soviet Union, but Russia has a veto over that option.

Even if all cargo and troops have to be airlifted out of Afghanistan, Selva is cautiously optimistic that Air Mobility Command will not have to increase its footprint in the region — although cargo planes may be needed more often. You might see more cargo planes moving within the U.S. Central Command theater of operations. Right now, between 12 and 18 C-17s fly into the Central Command theater every day, and Selva does not expect that to change.

“I think that can be managed with airplanes that are already there at that same level of effort, it will just be a question of how often we use them,” he said.

Over the past six months, the Air Force has ramped up efforts to make sure that aircraft delivering cargo to Afghanistan also take cargo out of the country on the return trip, Selva said. Now planes leaving Afghanistan are flying close to full cargo capacity more often.

The U.S. and Afghan governments are negotiating whether any U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, so it is not yet known if AMC will be needed to supply forces in Afghanistan after next year.

“The question that we’re all waiting for an answer on is what does the force structure look like post-2014 and that will depend in large part on ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and CENTCOM’s plans for how we manage our relationship with Afghanistan,” Selva said. “We will react to whatever that requirement is. I expect it to be a fair amount less than the infrastructure we have in the country right now.”

As mobility airmen face a busy 2014, Selva worries that sequestration could slow their career paths, especially C-130 and C-17 crews, he said.

In February, Selva warned that sequestration would have the same effect on aircrews as the power failure in the second half of the 2013 Super Bowl, which reversed the momentum of the game.

“With some really good coaching and work, the [Air Mobility Command] team made it through the third quarter,” Selva said. “We’re into the fourth quarter now, that will be FY 14, and I think we’ve got a rhythm to how we manage the impacts of sequestration that can carry us for about another year, but things I’m concerned about are the long-term impact on capability and proficiency of airmen across the enterprise.”

The budget cuts have resulted in reduced flying hours, so maintainers aren’t working on aircraft as much, aerial porters aren’t loading aircraft as often and crew members are spending fewer flying hours in training, he said.

“If we go through this for another year, my concern is we won’t be building the next generation of expertise, and I will find myself in a place where I will have to start taking a very hard look at skill level within each of those specialties — maintainers, aerial porters and aircrew — and, for lack of a better word, essentially hold them inside the weapon system because I don’t have the capacity to season and build a new person to replace them.

“That has an adverse consequence on what we call aircrew seasoning because I can’t take, for example, an aircraft commander and let him or her go to an instructor pilot tour at Air Education and Training Command or a staff tour because I’m busy managing the balance of expertise between pilots and co-pilots inside the weapons system,” Selva said.

“The two weapons systems it’s going to affect the earliest, based on what we think we are seeing, is the C-130 and very likely the C-17,” he said. “The demands on those crews and their variety of expertise is going to drive us to that decision sooner rather than later.”

Such consequences would begin in the mid- to late-2014 if sequestration continues, Selva said. The pain would be more acute if sequestration takes effect halfway through the fiscal year again.

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