Air Force leaders testified April 2, before the Senate Appropriations Committee on their service’s top priorities now and for the future.
Joined by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and National Guard leaders and Air Force Reserve leadership, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James discussed the challenges of operating in a tough fiscal climate.
“We are living in very challenging times,” she said, “both in terms of our security environments as well as the budget environment that we are facing. We have attempted to take these challenges on directly and deliberately and thoughtfully, and we have done so as a team, very inclusively.”
To make these choices, the secretary said, leaders used the nation’s military strategy as their starting point.
“That begins with the strategy of today, which includes defending the homeland against all threats, building security globally by projecting U.S. influence, and deterring aggression,” James said, adding that it also includes remaining prepared to win decisively should deterrence fail.
The Air Force must invest today in the technologies for future platforms, the secretary said.
“We need to also turn ourselves and direct ourselves to new centers of power,” she added, “and be prepared to operate in a more volatile and unpredictable world – a world in which we can no longer take for granted American dominance of the skies and space.”
James said the Air Force is crucial in both parts of this strategy, but faces trouble with likely budget scenarios that would create gaps.
“I’m certain that that will be the case,” she said. “Now, having been an observer on the scene of defense for more than 30 years … there are always some degree of gaps that we face between strategy and budget – they never match exactly.”
When those mismatches occur, she said, judgment calls must be made about what risks are most prudent.
This year has been more difficult and complex than most, James said, with no “low-hanging fruit” to capture as part of budgetary actions. While the Bipartisan Budget Act and the Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriations Act provided “bump-ups,” the secretary noted, this didn’t solve all of the Air Force’s issues.
The bottom line, James said, is that the budget and the five-year plan need rebalancing.
“We are coming out of 13 years of a persistent war … and now we need to rebalance,” she said. “We need to recapture our complete readiness and our future capability.
“It’s really not an either/or situation,” she continued, “because we very much need to have both in (those) rebalancing actions.”
James laid the framework for her three top priorities through some of the major decisions the Air Force has made.
Those priorities, she said, are taking care of people, balancing today’s readiness with tomorrow’s readiness, and ensuring the nation has the best, most capable Air Force in the world at the best value for taxpayers.
Delving into each priority, James explained each concept, beginning with the recruiting and development of the best people.
“As far as I’m concerned, 100 percent of the time it always comes down to people,” she said. “So taking care of people, to me, means we need to recruit the right people; we need to retain the very best people.
“We need to shape the force as we go forward as well,” James added, “and get the right balance between our active duty, our National Guard and our reserve components.”
The Air Force’s plan going forward, she said, relies more heavily on the National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.
James also said it is important to protect family programs and to ensure a “climate of dignity and respect for all.”
“We have to continue to combat sexual assault and make sure that everybody is living and leading our core values in the Air Force which are integrity, service and excellence,” she said.
Fair compensation also is important, James said, though slowed growth in compensation is necessary.
On balancing today’s and tomorrow’s readiness, the secretary said, the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request fully funds flying hours and other high-priority readiness issues that, with time, will see gradual improvement. The F-35 joint strike fighter, the KC-46 tanker and the new long-range strike bomber all are protected as well with an eye on investing in tomorrow’s readiness, she added.
Support to the nuclear triad also will continue, James said, noting that two-thirds of the triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, come from the Air Force.
“We have also made decisions to replace our aging platforms like the combat rescue helicopters,” James said, “and (to) invest in a new jet engine technology that promises reduced fuel consumption, lower maintenance and will help our industrial base.”
Given current budget realities, the secretary said, some “very, very tough choices” had to be made.
“We proposed to retire some entire fleets,” James said. “That way, we will get billions of dollars of savings, vice millions of dollars. This will include the A-10 fleet and the U-2, which have served us well for years. But again, tough choices were in order.”
The tough choices also include limiting combat air patrols and retiring the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle fleet in favor of the “fully capable MQ-9 Reaper fleet in the future,” she added.
James said her final priority is making sure every dollar counts.
“This means keeping acquisition programs on budget and on schedule,” she said. “We’re going to continue to move forward and get to a point where we (have) auditability as a Department of Defense and as an Air Force. We’re going to trim overhead, including that 20 percent reduction you’ve heard (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) talk about.”
James said if sequestration-level funding returns in fiscal 2016, Air Force leaders believe it would compromise national security too much. If forced to return to those previous levels, James said, 80 more aircraft, including the KC-10 tanker fleet, would have to be retired, sensor upgrades to the Global Hawk would be deferred, and the purchases of F-35s would slow.
The Air Force also would have fewer combat air patrols, fewer Predator-Reaper patrols, and would be unable to continue the next-generation jet engine program. Other important programs would have to be re-evaluated, she said.
Welsh also testified on the impacts of a return to sequester-level funding, telling the panel that Air Force leaders simply cannot ignore the fact that the law as currently written returns sequestered funding levels in fiscal 2016.
“And to prepare for that,” Welsh said, “we must cut people and force structure now to create a balanced Air Force that we can afford to train and operate in (fiscal 2016) and beyond. We also have to look at where we must recapitalize to be viable against a threat 10 years from now.”
Welsh said while there are no “easy choices left” regarding the budget, the Air Force is the “finest in the world,” and everything needs to be done to keep it as such.
“We built this budget to ensure that Air Force combat power remains unequaled,” he said. “But that does not mean that it will remain unaffected.”