Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh testifies Nov. 7 at a hearing on the impacts of sequestration. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
The service will soon start announcing force reduction measures to help it meet sequester-driven cuts of roughly 25,000 total force airmen over the next five years, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.
The Air Force will first try to achieve the necessary cuts — nearly 5 percent of the force — with voluntary force reduction measures, Welsh said Nov. 7 after testifying about the effects of sequestration to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Welsh said he wants eligible airmen to have at least six months to consider their options.
“The sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned, so the force is well-informed about what potentially could happen,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to be surprised that they’re eligible for something like this, and I want them to have plenty of lead time — six months or more — to think about what their options could be.”
But if voluntary force reduction measures aren’t enough, Welsh said, all involuntary measures could be on the table, including reduction-in-force boards, selective early retirement boards and date-of-separation rollbacks.
“Every tool that we can use, we may have to use, if we get full sequestration,” Welsh said.
Welsh said that if Congress comes to a deal that eliminates or replaces the sequester cuts, the Air Force will pull back on those force reduction measures.
“Hopefully, there’s some kind of budget deal that’s reached, and all of this will become” overtaken by events, Welsh said. “And then if we end up not having to do anything, we’ll tell everybody as soon as we know that’s the case.”
The sequester forced the Air Force to stand down 31 squadrons, including 13 combat-coded squadrons, in 2013. Seven more squadrons were only able to fly enough to maintain proficiency in basic tasks, such as takeoff and landing, Welsh said.
Welsh and the other chiefs of staff urged lawmakers to give the services enough flexibility to decide where to make budget cuts on their own. The Air Force could meet the savings required by sequestration, if it had enough flexibility to make prudent cuts over time, Welsh said.
“However, sequestration robs us of that flexibility,” he said. “We’re left with options that simply don’t make business sense.”
For example, Welsh said, the Air Force will be forced to cut flying hours to the point that within three or four months, many units would be unable to maintain full mission readiness if sequestration continues. Major exercises will be canceled or curtailed. And the Air Force will reduce its initial pilot production targets, he said, which it was able to avoid doing in fiscal 2013 because it was able to use about $1.5 billion in unobligated funds from the previous year to offset roughly 25 percent of the service’s sequestration share. But that is not an option this year, Welsh said, because there is no money left over.
The current continuing resolution that is funding the Air Force has roughly $500 million less in operations and maintenance funding than the service had programmed for the year, Welsh said.
“We are behind the power curve, and dropping further behind,” Welsh said.
And Welsh reiterated his warning, which he first made in September, that the Air Force could be forced to cut about 550 aircraft over the next five years. The Air Force would have to cut entire fleets of aircraft, because cutting a few aircraft from each fleet would not be enough, he said.
The flying reductions are starting to affect the Air Force’s morale in worrying ways, Welsh said. He said he recently spoke to a group of young pilots, who were eligible for an aviation career incentive bonus if they agreed to stay with the Air Force, but had not accepted it.
“That doesn’t mean they’re planning to leave the Air Force, but it certainly means they’re keeping their options open, at a minimum,” Welsh said.
The Air Force is offering up to $225,000 bonuses to pilots who commit to 10 more years in the Air Force. Another group of young airmen told Welsh that they were bored because their squadrons weren’t flying.
“They said at the end of their enlistment, they planned to find work that they thought was a little more exciting,” Welsh said. “I haven’t heard anybody in our military say they were bored in quite some time. So that got my attention.”
The Air Force also needs to get back to full-spectrum training — or teaching airmen how to fight in all scenarios — which has been put on the back burner in the last few years due to the war in Afghanistan, Welsh said. For example, Red Flag training exercises and some weapons instructor courses were canceled last year, he said.
“That’s where we train our Ph.D.-level warfighters to lead and train the rest of the force,” Welsh said. “We have got to get back to that. If we’re not ready for all possible scenarios, then we’re accepting the notion that it’s OK to get to the fight late. We’re accepting the notion that the joint team may take longer to win, and we’re accepting the notion that our warfighters will be placed at greater risk. We should never accept those notions.”
Welsh said they’re in the process of cutting two four-star general positions, 15 three-star positions, and reducing the number of staff supporting those generals.