The debate about the size of the defense budget and the national debt has been going on for more than a decade. During that time, each service has had to take a hard look at what programs it could reasonably cut while fighting two wars. The choices were reduced to overhead costs, readiness or direct war fighting capabilities. The magnitude of the cuts forced reductions to all three. 

In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act and as a result, in the summer of 2013, with Congress unable to come to an agreement on budget cuts, sequestration was triggered with large, immediate cuts across the services. As the 37th vice chief of staff, the undersecretary of the Air Force and I were charged to deal with these cuts.

The Air Force portion of the reduction was $11 billion. Moreover, the cuts had to be implemented with only half our budget year remaining. This drastic and sudden reduction forced a dip in Air Force readiness levels not seen since the 1970s. We stood down 35 combat squadrons for three months and canceled much-needed exercises. We deferred aircraft and depot maintenance, deferred repairs to infrastructure, delayed critical modernization, and broke faith with our civilian airmen by furloughing them.

Even in the throes of the biggest fiscal crisis in history for the Department of the Air Force, our senior financial management civilian was not exempt from furlough — leaving our Air Force without senior civilian leadership during a critical period. We cannot allow such an irresponsible approach to fiscal crisis again. Our civilians are critical to the ongoing operation of our military.

We did everything we could to maintain what was absolutely necessary to keep our war fighters going and in the fight.

During this period, there were two concerns that literally kept me up at night. First was the thought that if a crisis developed and the nation called on the Air Force to respond, how effective would our response have been. Second, the very thought that we were forced to temporarily "lay off" our dedicated civilian airmen really gnawed at me. This was particularly troublesome considering most of our Air Force civilians work in direct mission support jobs, many on Air Force flight lines and in repair depots.  

As a response, the Air Force had to make every dollar count. We had to find methods to save in ways we never thought possible. We had to look at every process and think outside the box. To help, we turned to our greatest resource: our innovative airmen. 

In 2014, the Air Force initiated a "Make Every Dollar Count" campaign throughout the Air Force. The secretary of the Air Force made this program one of her top priorities. It was designed to harness the creativity of our airmen to lessen the financial impact caused by sequestration by finding savings in everything we do so we could maximize the effectiveness of every tax dollar spent.

First, unit and central fund managers were asked to look for programs that were no longer necessary and could be restructured or terminated so funds could be used elsewhere. Then we asked each airman to come up with innovative ideas that would provide opportunities to streamline processes and maximize available dollars. This became the "Airmen Powered by Innovation" campaign.

I have always had faith in America's innovative airmen, but back in 2014, when we challenged them to bring cost-savings ideas forward, the response was overwhelming. On the first day of the campaign, 1,700 suggestions were submitted. Near the end of the first month, more than 12,000 suggestions had poured in. Suggestions were big and small, running the spectrum from minor process improvements to large organizational changes. The savings were used to maximize Air Force combat capability and support readiness. In response to the tremendous impact provided by our airmen, the annual Innovation Award was created to recognize the greatest contributions submitted by an individual and/or team.

The 2015 individual winner, Master Sgt. Matthew J. Galinsky identified inefficiencies in and strengthened accountability methods, acquisition codes, and shipping processes, saving the Department of Defense more than $29 million. In addition, he led an Air Force Allowance Standard review, incorporating 42 changes and enabling $219 million of support assets to be postured for operational plan execution.

As the 2015 team winner, the Air Force Materiel Command's Hill Air Force Base Electro-Chemical Milling Team designed and developed a new electro-chemical milling fixture, using commercial off-the-shelf parts, for less than $10,000. The fixture is used to remove the metal case of missile motors so that solid propellant can be accessed for aging and surveillance testing. Their efforts were directly responsible for reducing the time to remove the casing of an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile motor from eight weeks to two weeks, resulting in a one-time savings of more than $533,000 and an annual savings of $640,000.

To some, these savings may pale in comparison to a $600 billion annual budget; but when totaled, these efficiencies made and continue to make a tangible difference. Former Sen. Everett Dirksen famously said: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." In that spirit, our view was if we could create a culture of cost efficiency throughout the Air Force, the savings would add up to real money — and that is exactly what happened and continues to happen today. Additionally, many of the cost-savings ideas resulted in reduced staff time. As Air Force Under Secretary Lisa Disbrow said: "Making every dollar count applies to money and time; we value every minute of our airmen's time so we're on the hunt for ways to do things smarter, and when possible, cheaper."

The uncertainty of future budgets make it difficult to balance investments to modernize, recover readiness, right-size the force and win today's fight.  It makes sense to do everything in our power as a service and as a nation to "Make Every Dollar Count."

The reality of another continuing resolution means we continue at 2016 levels and prevent new programs from starting, making it difficult to plan ahead. Moreover, the uncertainty of future funding levels causes inefficiencies and wastes taxpayer dollars. Tight scrutiny of taxpayer dollars is more important than ever. As an Air Force that is powered by airmen and fueled by innovation, making every dollar count is now more important than ever.

Gen. Larry O. Spencer (ret.), president of the Air Force Association, spent more than 40 years in the Air Force. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Air Force Times editorial