The rigid requirements of sequestration spending cuts have made it difficult for the Air Force to maintain readiness, the service’s top officer said July 17.
Speaking to CNN’s John King at the annual Aspen Institute Security Forum in Aspen, Colo., Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said each service has four major accounts: personnel, infrastructure and facilities, modernization, and readiness.
“We have had a great amount of difficulty recently doing anything about the infrastructure and facility costs — we can’t seem to get to a point where we can reduce those,” he said. “We have not been able to reduce the people costs. In fact, the people costs have gone up exponentially over the last 10 years.”
So, he said, sequestration requirements have driven the Air Force to look at modernization and readiness costs. “Those are the only places we have to take money from,” Welsh said.
“We are trading modernization against readiness,” he added. It’s the only place we have to go for funding because of this abrupt, arbitrary mechanism that is sequestration — and it’s causing a real problem on the readiness side of the house and putting out ability to modernize over time at risk.”
The civilian employee furloughs necessitated by the spending cuts are a problem for the Air Force for two reasons, Welsh said. “The first is a very human reason – we have about 180,000 civilians in our Air Force. Those civilian airmen are integral to every mission we do, and in some cases, they are the mission – they’re the entire workforce.”
About 150,000 of those civilians are being furloughed for 20 percent of the remaining fiscal year, he said. Most of them are lower-wage scale employees who are going to have trouble making ends meet, Welsh added.
From a corporate perspective, the Air Force is losing 70 million man-hours of work during the furlough period, he said. “That’s going to leave a bruise,” he added.
The Air Force and the Defense Department as a whole recognize that they have to be part of solving the nation’s fiscal problems, Welsh said. But the department has to make overly steep cuts in the modernization and readiness account in the first two years of sequestration, he added, because personnel or infrastructure can’t be cut quickly enough.
Impacts to operations already are being felt, Welsh said. “We’ve prioritized everything that we know about … but if something new happened, we’d be affected dramatically, because our ability to respond quickly is affected.”
In his discussion with King, Welsh also addressed a number of recent headline-making events.
Recent leaks of classified material are a lesson re-learned, he said. The existing safeguards need to be adjusted based on these cases to ensure that personnel with access to classified information will protect it properly, he said.
“I think the key is (to) control access to information,” he added. “Everybody doesn’t need it, and you have to very carefully vet people who have the skills to operate on your networks because we know the cyber domain is now a huge vulnerability – as well as an opportunity.”
Solving the sexual harassment and sexual assault crisis will require the services and the Defense Department to partner with Congress, victims’ advocacy groups, universities and experts around the country, the general said.
“I don’t care who else has the problem; my problem is the United States Air Force. … The trauma of this crime is to the entire institution,” he said.
Last year, 792 sexual assaults were reported in the Air Force, he said.
“The real number is higher than that. … According to our surveys, only about 17 percent of the people report it,” the general told King. “If you take a look at one victim – not 792, just one – and you look at the pain, the suffering, the lifetime of anguish … this is horrible. And multiply that by 792 times, and it’s appalling.”
For the Air Force, Welsh said, it’s not about addressing some spike in activity. It’s about making lasting changes across the entire spectrum of the force.
“From trying to screen for predatory behavior,” he said, “to deterring this kind of conduct from those idiots who become criminals … who might not technically be … violent predators, but they put themselves in situations where they take advantage of other people.”
Turning to the situation in Syria, Welsh said sequestration would make implementing a no-fly zone there difficult. “It would take some time to do it right,” he added, “because some of the units that we would use … haven’t been flying.”
Because of continuing rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force’s overall readiness levels have been declining since about 2003, Welsh said.
“We had to back off a little bit on full-spectrum training … where we try and simulate the most-difficult threat we can and train realistically,” the general said. In addition, the Air Force was forced to use some readiness funds to pay for modernization, he added.
“The Air Force is old,” Welsh said. “Our aircraft fleet is older, on average, than it’s ever been. … Modernization is not optional for the Air Force. We’ve got to modernize.”
The F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter is imperative to the future of the Air Force, Welsh said. Upgrading the existing fleet may save money, he said, but it will not make it competitive.
“A fourth-generation aircraft meeting a fifth-generation aircraft in combat will be more cost-efficient,” Welsh said. “It will also be dead before it ever knows it’s in a fight.
“Not having the F-35 right now … operationally makes zero sense to the warfighter,” he continued. Russia and China are rushing to produce their own fifth-generation fighters, the general noted, “which will put our fourth-generation fleet at immediate risk.”
Welsh said he doubts the United States will fight China or Russia in the next five years, “but the reality today is that about 53 different countries around the world fly Chinese or Russian top-end fighters.”
And despite the drawdown in Afghanistan, the Air Force isn’t going to get less busy. It still will perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions all over the world, Welsh said, and will be doing an airlift mission every 90 seconds, every hour of every day.
About 15,000 space operators will be providing missile warning for the United States, about 25,000 Airmen will be on the nuclear alert mission, satellite operators will be flying about 170 different satellites and more than 50,000 airmen will be engaged in cyber command and control, Welsh said.
“Our Air Force does an awful lot of stuff behind the curtain that people don’t really see,” he added.
Readiness will be affected if personnel, health care and retirement costs are not reined in, Welsh said.
“We have to solve the problem,” he added. “We just have to – there’s no other option. Or we’ll be doing nothing but paying people in the next 20, 30 years. We won’t be turning a wheel. … There’s no magic bucket you go to (in order) to get more money.”
Welsh acknowledged “a certain ambivalence” about the Air Force among the American people, “because they really don’t know everything we do. And it’s easy to get disconnected.”
In the areas around Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases, it’s easier for the larger Air Force to stay connected to communities, he said. The civilian airmen come to work on base and live in the community, Welsh noted.
“So, we’re actually better in those communities than we are anywhere else,” he said, “and we have to figure out how to take that strength and expand it.”