Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Phil Breedlove and his counterparts from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps testified May 10 before members of the Senate Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support about U.S. military readiness in light of recent budget cuts.
In his opening statement, Breedlove pointed out that the American people are fully aware that the nation has been at war for more than a decade, but that they might not know the Air Force has been engaged in combat operations since the first Gulf War.
“We have been conducting combat operations continuously for well over two decades,” he said, highlighting that Dec. 17, 2011, marked the first time in 20 years the Air Force did not fly an air tasking sortie over Iraq.
According to the general, the Air Force operated at full capacity during 2011 as Airmen simultaneously provided humanitarian support to Japan, executed a large presidential airlift movement in South America and supported the NATO no-fly zone over Libya – all while fully employed with counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“However, this intense level of performance has not come without a cost,” said Breedlove, who pointed out that the force as a whole is stressed while at the same time shrinking in size.
“Next year, we will be the smallest we have been since the inception of the U.S. Air Force in 1947,” he said. “Our force capacity of the future may not support this high level of sustained simultaneous operations.”
Breedlove also pointed out that Air Force aircraft are older than they have ever been, with the average age of fighters being 22 years old, bombers averaging 35 years old and tankers averaging 47 years old.
An aging fleet, increasing aviation fuel costs and higher-than-expected overseas contingency operations costs have resulted in a current year bill significantly greater than expected, according to Breedlove.
“We are working hard with (Department of Defense) leadership to address this shortfall to avoid actions that might harm readiness,” he said.
Breedlove said, however, that what really worries him with fiscal constraints isn’t an aging or shrinking force, but rather the impact on training.
“What really concerns me are the challenges we face to get our full-spectrum training,” he said. “We are proficient in the current, counterinsurgency fight, but we’ve had to put high-end, full-spectrum training on the back burner, which has the greatest effect on our combat air forces.”
The general told the senators that despite fiscal pressures, there continues to be an increasing demand for air, space and cyber capabilities, which is evident in the DOD’s new defense strategic guidance.
“In order to keep faith with the American people and provide our unique capabilities, upon which the entire joint team so greatly relies, it is imperative that we balance our force structure to preserve our readiness and maintain our risk-balanced force,” said Breedlove. “In doing so, we must rebalance our active and reserve component mix to ensure we can meet joint force requirements, while not exceeding deploy-to-dwell ratios across the entire total force.”
Breedlove said that as the Air Force rebalances the force, the service remains committed to advancements in technology and future investments “to continually sharpen the sword.”
“Although we will be smaller, we will remain an effective and ready force,” he said.