Discussing upcoming budgetary variables during a Pentagon news conference Dec. 13, the Air Force’s top civilian leader for the past six months addressed the inevitability of a smaller force.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning, who is returning next week to his position as undersecretary of the Air Force following today’s Senate confirmation of Deborah Lee James to assume the service’s top civilian position, recounted traveling to more than 40 bases to meet with thousands of airmen during his six-month tenure.
“[Airmen] see better than any of us the impact that readiness is having, because they’re not training, they’re not flying, they’re not able to maintain some things,” Fanning said. “They worry about what their future is going to be in the Air Force.”
Feedback from individual and group meetings with airmen, Fanning said, showed that uniformed and civilian Air Force members believe that budget issues are keeping them from being able to contribute to the mission the way they want to.
“Even during the furlough,” he said, “some civilians certainly complained about the impact it had on their pocketbook, but far more than that, civilians are telling me, ‘I can’t do what I need to do and want to do for the Air Force in 32 hours a week.’”
But, Fanning said, the national debt burden is a long-term national security issue, and Air Force officials are committed to being a part of the solution as the defense budget takes shape.
“I believe the American people have a right as we come out of two long wars to feel they can spend less, invest less in national security forces,” he said.
He cited examples of spending reductions following historical conflicts such as World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.
“We’ve usually not started [reducing spending] until the conflict is over, … and we’re still at war, … and we’ve always had some type of ramp to ease into those cuts,” he said.
However, he explained, sequestration spending cuts don’t allow for such flexibility.
“It’s not just the dollar cuts. … It’s the mechanics of sequestration, the immediacy of those cuts,” Fanning said. “It’s forcing us to make choices that we wouldn’t make otherwise and it’s forcing us to draw down in a more destructive way than necessary.”
Disproportionate pressure also remains on investment and readiness, because resizing the force takes time even when it’s possible, Fanning said. And congressional reticence to consider another round of base realignments and closures has proven costly and time-consuming in reducing the personnel force, creating an increasingly oversized infrastructure, he added.
With only operations and maintenance and investment accounts remaining for quick assessment, a profound impact to readiness could ensue.
“The Air Force was already in a 20-year readiness decline, something we were just starting to address when sequestration hit,” said Fanning, adding that the service’s size and structure doesn’t lend itself to a tiered readiness model.
“When the flag goes up,” he said, “the Air Force is expected to get to the crisis rapidly – speed is a key advantage of Air Force power.”
The number of Air Force squadrons equals the combatant commanders’ requirements, he said, but with little or no time to bring forces up to full readiness.
“If it takes months to generate combat air power, the president loses deterrence, diplomatic influence and contingency options on which the nation has come to depend,” he said.
Fanning characterized budget compromises currently in debate on Capitol Hill as encouraging though lower than service officials would like. The additional funds over the next two years will help cover readiness shortfalls, stability and planning, he said.
“Even with this relief, we will need to resize the Air Force to one that is smaller than it is today in order to protect investments we need for the future and to shape an Air Force that we can keep ready [and] we can’t do these cuts individually, ad hoc, in isolation,” Fanning said. “If something’s restored to the budget we present to the Hill, something else will need to go.”
Still, Fanning pledged a continued commitment to helping airmen get past the “distractions” of budget and political uncertainty.
“We will make the decisions that we can, as quickly as we can, as transparently as we can … to get the Air Force back to that ‘new normal,’” he said.