NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The skies over Nellis will grow significantly quieter come June 1, when the Air Combat Command stand down resulting from multiple budget shortfalls will finally take effect on flight training operations.
The impending cuts to hit Nellis come as part of an ACC mandate to cut 45,000 flight hours by Oct. 1 after major reductions were made to the command’s operations and maintenance account, ACC stated in an April press release.
Under the stand down, all air combat units not involved in operational testing or not directly preparing to deploy in support of major combat operations like Afghanistan will stand down on a rotating basis. For the 57th Wing, which manages all flying operations here and provides world class weapons and tactics employment to some of the Air Force’s most lethal pilots through the United States Air Force Weapons School, the newest budget reductions will have dramatic and immediate effects.
“We provide the advanced, realistic and relevant combat training to the rest of our combat force,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Moore, 57th Wing commander. “[Under these cuts] that advanced training is not going to exist.”
In the past, the USAFWS has produced approximately 80 graduates every six months out of two classes per fiscal year. Upon completion of the course, officers are, according to the USAFWS fact sheet, “expert instructors on weapons, weapon systems, and air and space integration.” Graduates then return to their home units, where the knowledge acquired at the USAFWS allows them to provide advanced instruction and valuable advice to their commanders. This year’s second class, 13B, has already been cancelled.
“This means the Air Force will be short 100 weapons officers that we normally send out to the field,” Moore said. He also added that Red Flag, Nellis’ signature air-to-air combat exercise open to allied nations around the world, has been cancelled for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Several Green Flag East and Green Flag West exercises have also been cancelled, Moore said.
“The rest of [the scheduled Green Flag exercises] are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis because of their direct impact on training service members before they head downrange,” he added.
Without enough flight hours to go around, Nellis pilots and instructors will utilize down time to “thoroughly update, re-evaluate and improve core [USAFWS] academics taught on the ground,” Moore said.
Squadron and group commanders throughout the 57th Wing have all devised ways to optimize time no longer spent actively flying, he added.
In addition to increased academic training and ground exercises, Moore expects pilots will also see a significant increase in the use of flight simulators to maintain basic skills.
While pilots and instructors will be among those most directly affected by the stand down, crew chiefs, maintainers, fuels operators and many other aviation-oriented career fields will see drastic changes as well.
“From a maintenance perspective, we plan to use [the stand down] as an opportunity to catch up on all maintenance activities we possibly can,” Moore said.
He also added that the stand down doesn’t mean an end to aircraft maintenance in the 57th Wing. The wing is also responsible for aircraft flown by the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, that , as of now, will be continuing normal flight operations in efforts to further test America’s latest air combat technology.
“Our maintenance group is not shutting down like a lot of people think,” Moore said. “If we have test flight activities going on, we’re also responsible for that.”
For the 53rd TEG, which is tasked with executing operational test and evaluation and tactics development projects assigned by ACC, the stand down will pose different challenges.
“Our flying hours have been protected to some extent,” said Col. Robert Novotny, 53rd TEG commander, “Flying hours for our fifth generation fighters [F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II] have been totally protected throughout the entire year.”
The challenges lie within the logistics of testing such a diverse range of new technologies at locations all around the country. The 53rd TEG is responsible for the overall execution of the 53rd Wing’s flying activities at Barksdale AFB, La.; Beale AFB, Calif.; Creech AFB, Nev.; Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.; Edwards AFB, Calif; Eglin AFB, Fla.; Dyess AFB, Texas; Whiteman AFB, Mo.; and here.
“There’s a lot of money spent on moving people and equipment around in the test business,” Novotny said. He also added that while flight hours for operational testing have not been cut, new technologies awaiting testing are being prioritized with many projects getting sidelined until more funding is available.
Novotny stressed the importance of the continued testing of new technologies in the post-sequestration Air Force citing up-and-coming weapon systems being developed by possible adversaries.
“The pace of the advancements in technology has rapidly increased,” Novotny said. “The reason we need to keep testing is because these [possible adversaries] never stopped.”
Despite the significant effects set to hit his command in the near future, Moore says the 57th Wing is ready to meet the challenge with optimism.
“This is just another challenge,” the general said. “We need to focus on the things we can control and not worry about the things we can’t; we have to look at this as an opportunity and not just a limitation.”