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Deal boosts funding for flying hours

Dec. 17, 2013 - 04:46PM   |  
A long, long time in the air
The A-1, above, and the Global Hawk have received protective language in the National Defense Authorization Act. (Air Force)
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Congressional agreements cut Air Force end strength in 2014 but provide funding for more flying hours. They also protect the A-10 and the Block 30 version of the RQ-4, two aircraft the service has tried to cut.

The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House on Dec. 12 but awaits final approval from the Senate, sets the active-duty Air Force’s end strength at 327,600, down 1,860 from last year’s authorized amount. The end strength of the Air National Guard is down 300 to 105,400, and the Reserve is down 480 to 70,400.

Another agreement, brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will help the Air Force retain readiness after sequestration-induced cuts forced the service to cut back on flying hours, including the grounding of combat squadrons. Air Force officials said the agreement would provide help in the next two years, but there’s more to do.

“It does alleviate readiness problems,” acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said Dec. 13. “It doesn’t fix them, but it helps us with them in ’14 and ’15.”

The proposed budget agreement, which is expected to pass, restores about $22 billion in previously ordered sequestration cuts throughout the Defense Department for the current year.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said this funding can be spent on replenishing the funding for flying hours and for exercises such as Red Flag and weapons school classes.

Air Force officials do not have specifics on how many flight hours will be funded next year but said that the compromise will provide relief and that readiness is the first area that they will focus on. The NDAA authorizes $146 million more than originally requested for active Air Force units, and $20 million more for air operations training.

“Last year, we had to cancel Red Flag. That cannot continue,” Welsh told reporters Dec. 13. “The near-term mitigation with this relief could help us make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Congress is forcing the Air Force to keep flying the Block 30 version of the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk, which the Air Force has repeatedly tried to cut; and it is blocking any Air Force plans to divest the entire A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet.

No new A-10 cuts

The NDAA states that funds cannot be used to make significant changes to manning levels for the A-10, or to prepare to retire the fleet.

“The Air Force should not retire the A-10 before its replacement achieves full operational capability — doing so would create a close air support capability gap that would put our ground forces at increased risk,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement. “As the Pentagon faces difficult budget decisions, budget savings should focus on areas that would not have such a direct and negative impact on the ability of our service members to accomplish their missions and return home safely.”

Ayotte has been the A-10’s largest supporter on Capitol Hill, even moving to block the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be the next Air Force secretary because of possible plans to cut the jet. The hold was removed in October.

The bill’s only caveat is that the service can cut A-10s that it had planned to retire before April 9, 2013, the date that Congress received the fiscal 2014 budget request. The request showed how the service planned to execute A-10 cuts outlined in the fiscal 2013 budget, said Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson.

The idea of cutting the entire A-10 fleet has met harsh opposition from its supporters, troops on the ground and congressional advocates. The service’s long-term plan has been to use the F-35 to take over the close-air support mission, along with current aircraft such as the F-15, F-16 and B-1B.

“I find myself arguing to get rid of things that I don’t want to get rid of to pay a bill we’ve been handed, and the people telling me I can’t give up anything to pay it are the people who gave us the bill,” said Welsh, a former A-10 pilot. “You can’t continue to defend everything and pay a $1.3 trillion bill. It won’t work.”

The Air Force has said it would save $3.5 billion over five years by cutting the entire A-10 fleet of 343 planes. Welsh said that to achieve the same amount of savings, the service would need to cut three to four times more F-16s, a jet that can help pick up the close-air support role and handle other missions.

While close-air support over one battle can help troops on the ground in that moment, more troops can be protected and enabled to operate freely by providing air superiority, Welsh said. That isn’t something the single-mission A-10 can do.

“Where an Air Force really saves lives for an Army ground component is not just in close-air support,” Welsh said. “In fact, the big number of lives you can save is in other areas. You need to provide the air superiority required for those Army units and maritime units to operate on the ground.”

The long-term focus and planning needs to be for possible missions with advanced enemies while action in Afghanistan winds down.

“If you lose the counterinsurgency fight, it could be embarrassing,” Welsh said. “If you lose the high-end fight, it could be catastrophic.”

Keeping Global Hawks

The same provision that protects the A-10 directs the Air Force to hang onto the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 variant, an unmanned aerial vehicle that the service has been trying to cut since budget deliberations began on last year’s bill.

Under the agreement, the Air Force must also report to Congress on all of its current and future high-altitude airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

The Air Force has been trying to move the brand-new Block 30 UAVs to storage because it has determined that the manned U-2 can do the ISR mission better and cheaper than the Global Hawks. In response, Northrop Grumman began designing and testing a “universal payload adapter” to attach U-2 sensors to the Global Hawk. But the Air Force has said it does not plan to move forward with the adapter and maintains it wants to mothball the aircraft.

MC-12 transfer

The NDAA also restarts a conversation that was a surprise when it was first brought up: moving MC-12 Liberty reconnaissance aircraft out of the Air Force and giving them to the Army, where they would continue their role of intelligence gathering over Afghanistan.

The aircraft came into existence in April 2008 when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Air Force could not produce enough unmanned aircraft to perform ISR over Afghanistan, and the service began outfitting civilian Beechcraft Super King Air propeller-driven planes with cameras and other intelligence-gathering tools. The aircraft has been busy in Afghanistan, but the Air Force has no long-term plan for them beyond transferring them to the Air National Guard.

Ejection seats

The NDAA also requires the Air Force to review the safety of its ejection seats following a fatal mishap this year.

Under the act, the Air Force needs to assess the risks of its ejection seats, and investigate whether helmet equipment, including night vision or a helmet-mounted cueing system, can cause increased risk of death or serious injury.

The amendment was introduced by Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., following the January mishap that killed F-16 pilot Capt. Lucas Gruenther near Aviano Air Base, Italy. During a night flight in inclement weather, Gruenther became spatially disoriented and ejected while flying at 560 nautical miles per hour. He was wearing helmet equipment when he ejected, and was killed by a 40G snapback when his drogue chute deployed.

“The Aviano incident has raised concerns about whether the current seats have adequate protections for pilots wearing advanced helmets and other helmet-mounted equipment that might not have been in use when the seats were designed,” said Udall spokesman James Owens.

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