U.S. Air Force leaders today released information indicating that America’s global edge in air power will begin rapidly ebbing away in March if Congress fails to avert planned spending cuts. Documents prepared by the service predicted it will be “substantially less able to respond on short notice” to emergencies, and could experience a “severe” erosion in combat readiness. The documents described major cuts in training, maintenance, base support and modernization that collectively would produce a “catastrophic impact” for the service’s civilian workforce, with thousands of employees being furloughed without pay or fired.
The Air Force and other military services are facing two separate budget challenges that culminate in March. First, because Congress failed to pass a defense appropriation bill for fiscal 2013, the services are already operating under a “continuing resolution” that limits spending to last year’s levels, prevents shifting money between major accounts, and precludes new program starts. Second, across-the-board cuts called sequestration that are mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for every year between 2013 and 2021 would trigger on March 1, requiring the service to find a full year’s worth of reductions in the final seven months of fiscal 2013. It is the combined impact of both measures that will cause major damage to Air Force activities, especially in the operations and maintenance accounts that largely drive readiness levels.
The White House and Republican-controlled House of Representatives are currently in a stalemate over how to proceed on budgeting for the government, forcing Pentagon planners to prepare for the worst. If the sequestration provisions of the 2011 budget law are not amended this month, then all defense accounts except military pay and benefits will be reduced by the same percentage, with almost no latitude for making tradeoffs between various activities. And if the current continuing resolution is not extended or replaced with a real appropriation measure by March 27, when it expires, then the government may have to shut down. The resulting uncertainty has military leaders scrambling to protect funding for warfighters who are in harms way, and contemplating cutbacks that they know will leave their services less prepared to cope with threats.
After four years of cuts to its modernization accounts and implementation of a previous round of reductions under the Budget Control Act, there is not much slack left in Air Force operations. The service proposed reducing its inventory of 5,600 aircraft by 246 in fiscal 2013, but Congress has challenged that and other initiatives aimed at making the force more efficient. For example, many of the Air Force’s bases are no longer needed for current or projected operations, but legislators are reluctant to authorize a new round of base closures. The end result is that Air Force leaders are saddled with high fixed costs, forcing them to take a disproportionate share of legislatively-mandated reductions from the areas where they still have spending discretion. That is one reason why they are facing an 18-20% reduction in flying hours and aircraft maintenance for the remainder of the year, and may even have to direct a “flying stand-down” during the final quarter of the fiscal year.