After about a quarter-century of combat operations, the Air Force has grown alarmingly accustomed to a battle rhythm in which “surge is the new normal,” Secretary Heather Wilson said Monday.
In her opening address to the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Wilson said the current pace of operations is taking a toll on readiness and that airmen must train to stay sharp on other vital missions.
For example, Wilson said, tanker pilots too often spend six months in the desert and then six months at home before another deployment.
“We all know that when you’re home, you’re not really home,” she said. “You’re doing all the things that we expect you to do, and more ― 365 day TDYs, rotating year after year after year. We have been doing too much, for too long, with too few, and that has to change.”
Wilson said that while on a recent trip to the Middle East, she and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein saw B-52s from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota lined up on the ramp. The crews of those B-52s were justifiably proud that that had gone on 573 missions in a row without being down with maintenance problems, Wilson said. That included more than 700 danger-close airstrikes, which the B-52 was never designed to do.
But those B-52s and their crews have a nuclear surety inspection scheduled for 10 days after they arrive home at Minot, Wilson said, a mission they haven’t trained on in more than four months.
“When I looked at the commander of that aircraft, I said, ‘Wow, do you think you can do that?’ ” Wilson said “And he said with confidence, ‘We got this, ma’am.’
“It is not fair for this nation to ask our commanders to keep saying ‘We got this’ right up to the point of failure, because we don’t got this.”
Wilson said the Air Force needs to make sure airmen have enough time to train, and that the service needs to get larger to allow them that time. She said she and Goldfein are working on increasing end strength.
Failing to do so will further hamper the Air Force’s readiness for high-end fights, and could cost lives, she said.
“Low readiness for a crisis doesn’t mean we won’t go,” Wilson said. “We will go. What it means is that fewer will come back. We have an obligation as a nation to make sure that our airmen are ready when the nation calls.”
Wilson also blasted Congress’ inability to fully fund the Air Force on time, forcing the service to operate under 31 continuing resolutions in nine of the last 10 years.
Operating without a budget is the greatest risk the Air Force faces at home, she said. A CR means the Air Force can’t start new programs, can’t fund new innovations or modernization investments, and loses the flexibility to enhance its readiness and lethality.
This gives U.S. adversaries an opening, little by little, to catch up, she said. And the possible return to the Budget Control Act’s funding limits, known as sequestration, presents an even greater risk of destroying the small progress on readiness that has been made in recent years, she said.
“This is how we lose the warfighting advantage for the citizens we seek to protect,” Wilson said. “The United States must get beyond the Budget Control Act in order to protect the country.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.