Budget battles here are causing tectonic shifts in the Air Force, the service’s leaders said during a Pentagon news conference Dec. 13.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said that even with some relief from sequestration, the service will pay the bills via force structure, modernization and readiness.
How this occurs will affect what the service will look like in 2023, when sequestration ends, they said.
The proposed budget deal making its way through Congress would mitigate some near-term readiness problems, Welsh said, and Air Force leaders will put any money Congress approves beyond sequestration into training and maintenance accounts.
Still, he said, this doesn’t change the long-term picture, noting that sequestration poses a “Sophie’s Choice” dilemma for the Air Force. Does the service choose to keep near-term readiness high at the expense of force modernization, or vice versa? “That’s the balance we’re trying to walk,” Welsh said.
One example of this conundrum is the close-air support mission. The Air Force is studying proposals on how best to carry out this core mission, the general said. One proposal would eliminate the A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft – the aircraft Welsh flew as a young pilot.
If money were no object, the A-10 would be a great platform to retain, the general said. But money is tight, he noted, and will be tighter.
“To pay our $12 billion-a-year bill toward sequestration, we have got to find savings in big chunks,” Welsh said. “That’s the problem. And that’s what all these discussions are based on. It’s not about a specific platform. It’s about balancing the mission sets.”
The Air Force ultimately will replace the A-10 with the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, Welsh said. “That plan hasn’t changed.”
The general said other aircraft, F-16s, B-1s and B-52s, provide roughly 75 percent of the close-air support in Afghanistan today. “We have a lot of airplanes that can perform that mission and perform it well,” he said. “Those other aircraft do other things for us.”
Saving money also is important, he said.
“To do that, you have to start talking about fleet divestitures, because you have to get rid of the infrastructure behind the aircraft – the logistics tail, the supply systems, the facilities that do all the logistical support and depot maintenance, et cetera,” he said. “That’s where you create big savings.”
Changing force structure also will change the service, and this is inevitable, Welsh said.
“We will have to draw down people – both the tooth and the tail that comes with that force structure,” he added.
Personnel policies will be used to shape the force, and the service is getting these policies out to Airmen now so they can make informed decisions, Welsh said.
“We’d love to get all this done with voluntary force-shaping measures over a period of time,” he said. “If we … have to take involuntary measures, I would like everyone to have at least six months of time to talk to their family (and) to think about the impact this could have on them.”