Cuts Spur Air Force To Idle Part Of Its Fleet By Julian E. Barnes

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DeM Banter: Argh! Once again… pondering the next 3-5 years, always interesting…

Wall Street Journal
April 10, 2013
Pg. 4

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Air Force is idling one-third of its combat air fleet because of across-the-board spending cuts, a move officials said would reduce readiness to respond in the event of a global crisis.

The Air Force also will halt training later this year at its Weapons School, the equivalent of the Navy’s Top Gun program, which trains advanced combat pilots.

The cuts emerged Tuesday and are among the deepest and most visible impact to the military from the spending reductions known as the sequester that went into effect in March.

“We are having to make some hard choices,” said Maj. Gen. James Jones, the Air Force’s director of operations. “It diminishes our operational capability. There is certain inherent risk.”

The Air Force won’t reduce flying hours for squadrons stationed in Asia or units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. But five squadrons that are returning from Afghanistan will be ordered to stop flying when they get back to the U.S. because of the budget cuts.

Overall, the Air Force must cut $857 million, or 18%, from its total budget for flying hours. The flying hours being cut are only for training. The Air Force’s Air Combat Command will cut 44,000 flying hours through September. The grounding of the squadrons was reported by the newspaper Defense News on Tuesday.

Winslow Wheeler, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that is often critical of what it views as wasteful military spending, said the Air Force opted to protect development of its next-generation fighter plane, the F-35. The F-35 won’t be fully operational for years, he said, but cutting flying hours will increase risk immediately.

“You literally cannot go to war without this training and, if you do, you are sacrificing pilots in order to preserve buying airplanes that cannot be ready for war until 2019,” he said.

Air Force officials said the across-the-board nature of the spending cuts limited their ability to choose where to trim. Congressional action to reverse the cuts or give them further authority to move money across budget accounts could allow them to begin flying more aircraft, the officials said.

The effects of the combat flying cutbacks will linger. Even if full funding is restored next year, Air Force officials said, it would take up to six months to return affected units to full readiness.

If the across-the-board spending cuts remain in place, forcing reductions again next year, units would require even more time to return to readiness.

“It will take some time to bring that unit back to full mission readiness,” Gen Jones said.

Squadron members who are idled will continue training on simulators. Pilots will also focus on classroom training. But Air Force officials said there is no doubt that the units would lose combat prowess, since they won’t be able to hone their skills in real-world training.

“When you stand down, you rapidly loose combat readiness,” said an Air Force officer.

Air Force officials said pilots currently attending the Weapons School also will see hours curtailed. The class that is scheduled to begin in June is being cancelled, officials said.

“There are a lot of impacts we will be feeling for next year or two years, and impacts we will be feeling far longer,” said an Air Force official.

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