Like the rest of the Defense Department, the Air Force has seen big funding cuts, leading to concerns about critical mission factors including the readiness of pilots and aircraft that aren’t flying today. “We’ve got folks sitting in fighter squadrons looking out of windows at aircraft that they haven’t touched since the first of April,” said Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force’s top officer.
Military leaders besides Welsh have expressed repeated frustration because they have little flexibility in applying the cuts—mainly because the law mandates the Defense Department enact a 9 percent cut across all programs.
For example, the Air Force has stood down 33 squadrons, 12 of which are combat-coded fighter and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance units. Another seven squadrons have been reduced to a basic mission capable rating.
Welsh recently told a group of civic and industry leaders there was a readiness crisis in the Air Force even before sequestration. He warned that the severe cutbacks required by the sequester will further downgrade force readiness beyond the current fiscal year if a budget agreement is not reached. “We can’t just all of a sudden accelerate training and catch up,” Welsh lamented. “It costs up to 2 1/2 times as much to retrain a squadron as it does to keep it trained.”
Sequestration is part of the Budget Control Act that mandates $1.2 trillion in cuts across federal agencies to include $500 million to the military over the next decade. Congress wrote sequestration into legislation to provide motivation for Congress to agree to a deficit reduction plan to replace the federal spending cuts. They failed to reach such an agreement and sequestration was triggered on March 1.
Military pay and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been exempted by President Obama from the cuts associated with sequestration, but everything else is on the table and subject to cuts, including family programs.
Importance of the F-35 Program
Welsh has gone on record saying the Air Force cannot perform its air superiority mission with today’s aging F-15 and F-16 fighters, and limited number of F-22s. He stressed the importance of having the next generation fighter, the F-35 and said acquisition of the new fighter was non-negotiable.
“When we truncated our F-22 buy, we ended up with a force that can’t provide air superiority in more than one area at a time,” Welsh said. “The F-35 is going to be part of the air superiority equation whether it was intended to be, originally, or not.”
Welsh made an interesting point when he observed that other countries will begin flying stealthy, highly-advanced fighters in the coming years. A US Air Force that doesn’t have the aircraft to counter these next-generation in a high-end fight it will be in trouble. “If a fourth-generation aircraft meets a fifth-generation aircraft, the fourth-generation aircraft may be more efficient, but it’s also dead,” Welsh concluded.
The troubled F-35 program has been years in development and has been plagued with cost overruns and technological troubles. If the Pentagon sticks to its current plan, taxpayers will spend in excess of $400 billion for the new fighters.