James: In-Demand Air Force Experiences Strain
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Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James testifies before the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee in Washington, Feb. 27, 2015. James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III met with the House members to discuss the Air Force's fiscal year 2016 budget request. U.S. Air Force photo by Scott M. Ash
The Air Force is requesting $10 billion above what sequestration-level funding provides in order to support its global responsibilities, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told members of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee here today.
James said the potential return of sequestration jeopardizes the Air Force’s ability to sustain its various global missions and hampers its ability to focus on its main priorities: people, modernization and stewardship.
“Sequestration needs to be lifted, lifted permanently,” the secretary said.
Combatant Commander Requirements
James said the request for $10 billion in additional funding is based on combatant commander requirements and the need for Air Force support to joint operations worldwide.
The Air Force is the smallest it’s been since it was established in 1947, James said. And it has a lot of older aircraft, while the demand for air support remains high.
“The average age of our Air Force [airmen] is about 27 years old but there are many [aircraft] fleets that are substantially older than that,” James said. “More than half of our combat air forces … are not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight.”
James said the Air Force provides two-thirds of the support to maintain the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Airmen also perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, she added, and carry out strike missions in Iraq and Syria to support the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“I fear we’re either going to break or we absolutely will not be able to do the defense strategic guidance that has been laid out for us,” James said.
People a Top Priority
Taking care of people is a top Air Force priority, said James, noting she takes service members’ concerns about downsizing seriously.
“We have to stop this downsizing; enough is enough,” the secretary said. “We need to upsize … modestly, active Guard and reserve to a total end strength of 492,000.”
That increase in personnel would allow the Air Force to redirect people to the nuclear enterprise, she said, and fill critical gaps in its cyber and maintenance teams.
James also reported plans to expand sexual assault prevention and response program services with augmented training, plus-ups in the special victims counseling programs, and provision of full-time sexual assault response coordinators.
Other goals include increases in child care support, fitness centers and educational benefits, as well as a 1.3 percent pay increase, she said.
Balance Between Readiness, Modernization
The balance between readiness and modernization is a vital element to ensure the Air Force is ready for the high-end fight, James said.
“Our proposal will fully fund flying hours to the maximum executable level, will invest properly in weapons system sustainment, and ensure that our combat exercises … remain strong,” she said.
The secretary reported that she and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III consulted closely with combatant commanders to assemble the additional $10 billion budget request with a focus on ISR, U-2 and Airborne Warning and Control System programs.
James also noted the need to support vital space programs and the nuclear enterprise, with additional investments in the KC-46 Pegasus refueling aircraft, F-35 Lightning II, and the long-range strike bomber, which she said will remain on track with the Air Force’s budget proposal to Congress.
Making Each Dollar Count
The secretary told Congress the Air Force is “driving steadily” toward auditability of its financial books, and it’s taking on a 20 percent reduction in headquarters funding, which includes civilians, contractors and redirection of military personnel.
There are difficult money-saving choices for the Air Force, such as the retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” aircraft over time, a proposal to slow military compensation growth, and consideration of a new round of base realignment and closures, James said.
Still, if sequestration remains the law of the land, James said the budget constraints portend even more sacrifices, including divestment in programs such as ISR, U-2, AWACs, KC-10 and F-35 procurements, total force flying hours, weapons system sustainment, and cancellation of the adaptive engine program.
“Your United States Air Force is still the best on the planet, but we mustn’t take that for granted because we are a force under strain,” James said. “And we mustn’t let our edge slip away.”
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