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The Air Force is bracing to cut up to 25,000 total force airmen — nearly 5 percent of the force — over the next five years if the current spending cuts known as the sequester continue, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers Sept. 18.
And up to 550 aircraft — about 9 percent of the Air Force's fleet — could also be cut, Welsh said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
These sequester-driven cuts will have devastating impacts across the Air Force, Welsh said, and could result in a drastically weakened service that struggles to meet its mission.
"Risk to the Air Force means we may not get there in time; it may take the joint team longer to win; and more Americans may die," Welsh said. "Speed is an inherent advantage of airpower. However, if our squadrons are grounded, if it takes weeks or months to generate global combat power, then we negate the responsiveness that is one of airpower's natural advantages and deprive our nation of deterrence, diplomatic influence and contingency options."
The Air Force now has about 506,000 airmen in the active, Air National Guard and Reserve force.
The threat of cuts in coming years, if sequestration continues, has been discussed among top military leaders for months. But this is the first time an Air Force leader has publicly stated how many airmen and planes would be affected.
In a Sept. 9 interview, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said the Air Force is starting to plan how it would cut airmen if the sequester continues.
"It is likely we will do some additional force-shaping [in fiscal 2014], just as we have done in fiscal year '13, and those numbers [of cuts] could be dramatically increased when you look in the out years, and how we will get to the end strengths that we believe we will need to be at," Cody said. "The discussion we are having right now with the acting secretary of the Air Force [Eric Fanning] and the chief of staff is: How do we lay those reductions in? Do we take a larger number upfront, and then try to normalize this out earlier, or do we in fact just try to smooth-flow this over the out years?"
Welsh said that the only way to save billions of dollars, as opposed to millions, would be by cutting entire fleets of aircraft. And with that comes cuts to the support staff and infrastructure needed to operate those fleets.
"We will have to look hard at divesting entire fleets of aging platforms that have less relevance in highly contested airspace, as well as platforms where we have excess capacity," Welsh said.
Specifically on the chopping block are the A-10 Warthogs, which in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the workhorses providing ground troops with close-air support.
Welsh also said the Air Force is considering cutting its KC-10 tankers. But the older KC-135 fleet is too vital to Defense Department operations to cut, he said.
"You can't eliminate that KC-135 fleet and still do the job that we do for the Department of Defense worldwide," Welsh said. "It's too large. There's nothing good about divesting any aircraft fleet right now. What we're looking at is where can we take savings and not completely stop our ability to do our job."
When asked about possible cuts to the B-1 fleet, Welsh said the Air Force is not seriously considering cutting bombers.
"Were we to make a major reduction in the bomber fleet, we would have extreme difficulty meeting some of the guidance in the defense strategic guidance," Welsh said. "I don't think there is major discussion inside the Air Force on that being a fleet that we would eliminate. Right now, we cannot retire a major portion of the bomber fleet at all."
As the Air Force cuts airframes, it will find itself with more infrastructure than it needs, Welsh said. And that could mean another round of the base realignment and closure process in the next few years, as the service tries to consolidate its people and aircraft to better use space.
If the sequester cuts continue into fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, the Air Force could be forced to cut flying hours by as much as 15 percent, Welsh said. Within three or four months, many units would be unable to fly at the rates required to maintain mission readiness. Major exercises would be canceled or significantly cut back. And the Air Force would reduce its initial pilot production targets.
Welsh said civilian furloughs this year dealt a blow to pilot training efforts, since civilians play a crucial role on the maintenance crews necessary to support pilot training.
"We learned here that we're going to have to cut a class, whether we want to or not, just as a result of lost production from impact on the civilian workforce and on our depots," he said.
And future aircraft modernization programs are likely to be gutted if the sequester continues. Without enough funds to acquire new generations of aircraft, the Air Force's ability to fight a war against an enemy's advanced air force would be seriously compromised.
"The damage will be insidious," Welsh said. "Should we face a high-end threat in the future, the impact of not modernizing will be blatant and deadly. "
Instead of acquiring entirely new aircraft, the Air Force is likely to recapitalize old aircraft to extend their life. However, Welsh said, "we cannot continue to bandage old airplanes as potential adversaries roll new ones off the assembly line."
"The blunt, indiscriminate mechanism of sequestration undermines the combat capability of the United States Air Force and the entire joint force and is unworthy of the men and women who risk their lives in service to our nation," he said.