The Air Force is facing a pair of budgetary disasters, either of which could have long-term consequences for our nation. Debating which is worse, sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution, is essentially a discussion about semantics. Let's end that discussion and cut to the chase — they are both bad for the country. The question is: What are we doing about it?
A return to sequestration would be devastating. I dealt with sequestration during my tenure as Air Force vice chief of staff, and I can tell you firsthand it was dreadful. During sequestration, the Air Force stood down 31 active aircraft squadrons. It imposed furloughs. It cut maintenance at many facilities. It delayed major depot maintenance, all of which seriously impacted our readiness. As appalling as these actions were, we had no other choice. By comparison, our own budget policies took down more aircraft than Japan at Pearl Harbor!
We are now operating under a continuing resolution and there is talk it may ultimately continue for a whole year. This is also bad news for our nation. This will result in $35 billion less from the defense budget. The services basically have three accounts: personnel, procurement and readiness. In the short term, the only account with the flexibility to absorb that size reduction is readiness. That's the money used to fly airplanes, sail ships, maintain military installations, and ensure our troops have the training and equipment to go to war. Readiness enables our nation to deter and respond to crisis.
That doesn't even consider the impact on programs that will also have to be cut, canceled or delayed. Which programs do we cut? We fly tankers more than 50 years old; how much longer can we delay replacing them? Our fighters are on average 25 years old and are reaching the end of their life cycles. We took possession of our newest B-52 bomber in 1963. Can we really risk shortchanging our nation's defense while both Russia and China are expanding their militaries and flexing their muscle?
A continuing resolution freezes the Defense Department's modernization programs into the previous year's production levels and pauses new ones. This is especially true for our Air Force. Without budget certainty, key Air Force programs, such as the Long Range Strike Bomber Program, the F-35A program and the selection of a new pilot trainer aircraft will be delayed. Our nation cannot afford this.
Unless Congress quickly passes a 2016 budget including adequate defense appropriations, our military will find it harder to live up to its responsibilities under the Constitution.
I joined the military because I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be on a winning team that when called upon could dominate the opposition. I am worried now. I am worried we could enter a conflict and not dominate. If my worries are valid, we would pay a horrific cost — in treasure and in lives lost. And then, the American people would rightfully ask, how in God's name could we have let that happen?
Spencer, former Air Force vice chief of staff, is president of the Air Force Association.