25 Feb 15. The Air Force’s readiness edge could slip away if sequestration is not lifted permanently, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told members of a Senate panel at a fiscal year 2016 defense appropriations hearing here.
Appearing with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, James said sequestration “threatens everything” if the law to force budget cuts is not lifted.
The Air Force is under duress, James told the panel.
“Your Air Force is unquestionably the best on the planet, but we are strained,” she said. “We are the best because our men and women who execute the mission each and every day are doing the very best job possible. But we mustn’t take this for granted.”
The Air Force secretary said her priorities are taking care of people, striking the right balance in preparing for today’s and tomorrow’s national security challenges, and making every dollar count.
During her travels to 60 bases and 12 foreign countries last year, James said, airmen have told her their biggest concern is downsizing the force.
Today’s Air Force is the smallest it’s been since it was established in 1947, and the average aircraft is 27 years old, the secretary said.
“This is at a time when the demand for our Air Force services is absolutely going through the roof,” she added.
“We are working to meet the combatant commanders’ most urgent needs,” James said. “But a budget trajectory that results in sequestration will not allow us to sustain this pace. We will either break or we won’t be able to execute the Defense Strategic Guidance if we are returned to sequestration.”
The Air Force instead needs to modestly upsize, James said, with a total force of 492,000 active duty, National Guard and reserve troops to execute the defense strategy.
Such an increase would help relieve operational strain, deployment and bolster the force’s nuclear enterprise, the secretary said. A force plus-up, she added, would also increase the cyber teams the Air Force is trying to build and “shore up” existing undermanned fields, such as maintenance.
The Air Force strives to make every dollar count, James said, adding that the service is progressing in numerous areas, including cutting headquarters by 20 percent, mostly in personnel. The service also is proposing to retire A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthog” aircraft, and will ask for another round of base closures, she said.
But if sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016, she said, “The choices will be more dire,” and “very important systems would perhaps have to be shelved.”
Air Force Could Become Too Small
Cutting force structure would risk that the Air Force becomes too small to accomplish its missions, Welsh told the Senate panel.
And reducing Air Force research and development costs to save money would hurt future readiness, he said.
“The option of not modernizing isn’t an option at all,” the general said. “Air forces that fall behind the technology curve fail,” Welsh added. “And joint forces without the full breadth of air space and cyber capabilities that modern air power brings will lose.”
If funding remains at Budget Control Act levels, the Air Force’s short-term readiness recovery will stall, he said.
“Our long-term infrastructure investment that we’re trying to start will remain a dream. We’ll be forced to recommend dramatic fleet reductions. Our modernization programs will be delayed again, allowing our adversaries to further close the capability gap,” Welsh said.
“The casualties will be Air Force readiness and capability well into the future,” the general said.
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)