Air Force's aiming to outmaneuver sequestration

DoD/Senior Airman Brett Clashman

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft with the 335th Fighter Squadron pulls alongside a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft after refueling during Green Flag-West 11-08 over Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on June 22, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Despite the fact that military spending remains at historic lows, Congress slated 50% of sequestration cuts to defense.

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  • Sequestration would mean a nearly $50 billion cut each year for 10 years to military funds.

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  • Sequestration cuts will degrade the skills of our pilots & technicians, putting them at risk and cutting America’s edge.

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The specter of blunt, across-the-board cuts to the military budget has shadowed the Department of Defense for well over a year. The so-called fiscal cliff deal reached at the eleventh hour followed the now-usual Washington move of kicking the can down the road, delaying for two months the impact of a nearly 20 percent cut in planned expenditures. On top of that, since the Democratic-controlled Senate has refused the pass a constitutionally mandated budget for over three years now, the U.S. military has been funded through a budget gimmick known as a continuing resolution. The CR, as it is called in Washington, is a stopgap measure to provide funds but does not offer the same level of fiscal certainty as a formal budget. The current CR runs through March 27 but might be extended for the entire fiscal year.

Much of the discussion over potential spending cuts and their effect has been academic, with arguments over possible ramifications. Despite the fact that military spending remains at historic lows, Congress, following President Barack Obama’s lead, slated 50 percent of the sequestration cuts to military funds. This would mean a nearly $50 billion cut each year for 10 years. That’s in addition to an already agreed-upon plan — the Budget Control Act — to cut approximately $487 billion over the next decade from military funding and $500 billion in reductions during Obama’s first term. All the while, the country’s leaders expect the planes to keep flying, the ships to keep steaming and the soldiers to keep patrolling.

Now, one branch of the military has started to bite the bullet. In doing so, the Air Force is making clear just what the costs of government dysfunction and sequestration mean in the real world. Instructions released this month to major commands by Air Force headquarters reveal the burdens imposed on the country’s airmen and the dangers of a hollowed-out force emerging from the budget wreckage. While the document has not been made public, it outlines drastic measures to mitigate the full effect of sequestration, including a $1.8 billion shortfall in funding for combat operations overseas — primarily in Afghanistan, where Air Force operations will continue.

The measures being implemented by the Air Force include:

• A civilian hiring freeze, which, as a senior official tells me, is among the hardest cuts to recover from given workforce needs and training cycles

• Curtailing flying not directly related to readiness, such as air shows and flyovers

• Limiting supply purchases to essential consumption for the upcoming year

• Canceling all temporary duties that aren’t “mission-critical,” such as training seminars, hosting or attending conferences and symposia and staff assistance visits

• Reducing studies that are not congressionally directed or mission critical

• Major deferment in upkeep of Air Force installations, housing, etc.

Other reports from the Office of the Secretary of Defense paint an even grimmer picture if the full sequestration hits. Under such a scenario, the Air Force most likely would reduce flying hours for pilots up to 20 percent and would defer all maintenance that isn’t mission critical. Some senior leaders believe that their combat-readiness rates will plunge by half or more. That means the skills of our pilots and technicians will degrade, putting them at risk and cutting the edge that America’s airmen have always had over other nations. In addition, the Air Force is studying the possibility of civilian furloughs of up to 30 calendar days, affecting numerous missions and thousands of workers who have mortgages and monthly bills to pay.

Meanwhile, the president just ordered the Air Force to transport French troops to fight Islamist militants in Mali and expects it to continue its daily global operations protecting and supplying troops, evacuating wounded, providing communications and flying him around the world. For its part, Congress, which created sequestration, just passed in the House a pork-laden $50 billion bill ostensibly designed to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy. However, it contains just $17 billion in direct assistance for Sandy victims and $33 billion for nonemergency purposes, including $16 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Fund for “economic revitalization.”

There is no doubt that the military can find places to cut expenses and, indeed, has done so by nearly $400 billion since 2009. Yet what is being crammed down the gullets of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard is raising the risk of a hollowed-out force, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is an insult to our servicemen and women who continue to deploy around the globe and the civilians who support them. Worse, it is irresponsible policy of an ungrateful and unserious president and Congress. Their actions today will create higher risk for our pilots, sailors and soldiers and lead to a military that one day might find it impossible to carry out the tasks demanded of it by its civilian masters.

Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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