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Secretary expects personnel cuts to be less severe than previously estimated

Feb. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Deborah Lee James
The number of airmen facing the ax, previously estimated at 25,000 over five years, 'won't be quite as high,' Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday. (Cliff Owen/The Associated Press)
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The Defense Department’s 2015 budget request, to be unveiled next week, will propose cutting fewer than the previously estimated 25,000 airmen over five years, and the majority of those cuts will come from the active duty, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers in September that the service would likely have to cut 25,000 airmen, about 5 percent of the force, over the next five years because of budget restrictions. But budget relief this year and further deliberation means that the number of airmen facing the ax “won’t be quite as high,” James said at a Bloomberg News event in Washington, D.C. Most of those cuts will fall on the active duty, with the service looking to rely more on the National Guard and Reserve.

The Air Force looks to make the numbers by “shaping the force,” and getting airmen to retrain from areas with too many people to areas that are in need. In addition, the service will offer incentives to airmen to leave the service. If the numbers are not made, the Air Force will use involuntary cuts to lower the total force.

The exact number of airmen to be cut will be unveiled with the budget next week, James said.

James also outlined a series of proposed cuts that have been announced, including most notably, retirement of the A-10 fleet.

The Air Force expects to save about $3.5 billion over the next five years by retiring the A-10, James said. She admitted it would be tough to get the proposed cuts through Congress, but that it is a case the service needs to make.

“It will be tough. … Our mission of course is to lay out the facts,” James said. “We will be prepared to make this case.”

James began laying out that case by saying the A-10 is one of several airframes that provides close-air support but about 80 percent of close-air support missions in Afghanistan were provided by aircraft other than the A-10.

Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said the Warthog was developedin a different era, before the development of precision-guided munitions.

“We love the airplane, but we simply can’t afford it in this environment,” he said.

The Air Force plans to retire the A-10s. It does not plan long-term storage and to later return the plane to service, James said.

The Air Force is also looking to retire another aircraft that has had extensive experience in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, the MQ-1 Predator drone. The service will look to retire the Predator gradually over the next five years, and move to a fleet entirely made up of MQ-9 Reapers. The cuts come as the Air Force looks to reduce its number of combat air patrols in Afghanistan from 65 to 55, with the ability to surge to more than 70.

The service is dropping previous plans to cut another drone, the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Instead, it wants to retire the almost 60-year-old U-2 Dragon Lady. The Air Force reversed its course after negotiations with contractors lowered the sustainment costs of the RQ-4 to below that of the U-2.

Last fall, the Air Force said it would not buy a universal payload adapter to make the Global Hawk’s optics on par with that of the U-2. The service said then that the adapter would cost almost $490 million and would take three years to develop and test, and another two years to produce. James said Wednesday the service would now look to moving forward with the adapter.

These cuts do not take into account additional budgetary pressure from sequestration. If the service is faced with additional cuts, it would turn to retiring an additional 80 aircraft, including the entire fleet of KC-10 Extenders. The refueling aircraft would be targeted, as opposed to the older KC-135 Stratotankers, because the entire fleet could be cut. Also, with the commercial equivalent, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, seeing less service, fewer replacement parts would be available for the KC-10.

Some of the personnel savings will also come from headquarters staff. James said that the Air Force will combine its strategy, planning and budget staff at the Pentagon, and centralize its policy and oversight of installation support, including civil engineering, security forces and contracting. The service will also cut its administrative staff. While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the service to cut 20 percent from its headquarters staff over five years, James said the Air Force will do better than 20 percent within one to two years.

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