WASHINGTON ― With the U.S. military facing a rising tide of aviation mishaps, the decision to cut maintenance budgets in 2013 continues to loom large as a potentially historic moment for the Pentagon.
While it is not the sole culprit, voices both inside and outside the Pentagon concede the mandatory budget cuts imposed in 2013 by sequestration caused significant damage to the military’s ability to sustain and maintain its aircraft, contributing to year-over-year increases in aviation mishaps.
Eric Fanning was acting secretary of the Air Force when sequestration became law of the land. He had a first-hand look at the process the service experienced. In a recent interview with Defense News, he acknowledged the operations and maintenance accounts were disproportionately impacted by the cuts ― but said there was no other realistic option.
“When you have to cut quickly, you go to your operations and maintenance accounts,” said Fanning, now the head of the Aerospace Industries Association trade group. “That’s the place you have to go when you have to make quick cuts. That’s the money that’s available to you.”
Overall, Air Force mishaps rose 16 percent between 2013 and 2017. Across the military, accidents involving all of the Defense Department’s warplanes — manned fighter, bomber, helicopter, tiltrotor and cargo aircraft — rose nearly 40 percent during that time.
To make matters worse, the building was under strict orders not to plan for sequestration, even as it inched closer, a political decision intended to put pressure on Congress to make a deal that resulted in the military having to scramble to find immediate savings.
“In hindsight I think everybody would say we would have liked to have done that differently,” Fanning now says. “So we were caught unprepared in some ways.”
As a result, service leaders had to quickly gather and make decisions about what could be cut. With the fiscal year already half over, cutting acquisition projects already underway was unrealistic, leaving few options for where to find savings.
“What we did in the Air Force, you pulled together the very senior leadership. You literally put the Air Force budget in sort of visual representation on a wall and started to have a conversation about what can we do without, what can we cancel, what can we push out two, three, five years,” Fanning explained.
Those programs that could be pushed were generally modernization efforts that had already been delayed, meaning older airframes would have to fly longer and stretched further ― at the same time that maintenance budgets are being cut and experienced maintainers are being offered early retirement.
However, Fanning stressed that the current aviation crisis was not just related to sequestration. It was the mix of budget cuts and ongoing operational requirements, which only increased with the launch of the mission against the Islamic State group in late 2014.
“If you want to cut the budget to the military, you’ve got to think about what you’re going to ask the military to stop doing,” he noted. “To try and keep the military the size that it is on the tempo that it is and cut the budget, something is going to give eventually.”
While there is now consensus around the impact of sequestration on the military’s readiness, it was difficult for the Air Force to sell that message at the time.
“I felt like we were sounding a little bit like Chicken Little and it wasn’t having an impact, and I’m like: You know what? It won’t be until a plane literally falls out of the sky that people are going to realize what’s going on,” Fanning said.
“And I think you’re starting now to see the aggregate cumulative effect of that.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.