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Aug. 9, 2013—The March deployment of stealthy F-22s
and B-2s to South Korea was an effective use of airpower—North Korea’s
belligerent tone softened suddenly and considerably in the following days and
weeks—but it also highlighted how complex air operations can be and why
readiness is so critical.
putting together a mission that starts in the United States and goes literally
halfway around the world,” said Lt. Gen. Burton M. Field of the 37-hour B-2
roundtrip to South Korea. “Do it in a couple of days, ... do it at night, and do
it so nobody knows about it until you want them to know about it. That’s not an
deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, observed that
“having a problem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of the
night, in the middle of weather, is not something you want untrained crews to
because of the government’s budget sequestration, many Air Force crews are
falling out of proficiency, and fewer units are ready and available for
short-notice operations. This is the new hollow force, and it’s going to be
with us for a while.
The Air Force’s
readiness hit rock bottom early this summer, due to the sequester’s effect on
flying hours. More than 30 squadrons had been grounded since April, while some
others flew only enough to maintain the most basic proficiency. Pilot, aircrew,
and maintainer skills decayed, and remain precarious: The service’s top leaders
say their options are limited if a new war breaks out. If Congress won’t reverse
the budget sequester before the end of this month, the situation will likely
get much, much worse.
has been “everything we’ve been telling everybody it was going to be,” Air
Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said in June. Speaking at a seminar
in Arlington, Va., Welsh said, “We have 33 squadrons not flying. There are … 12
combat-coded squadrons that are not turning a wheel.”
canceled and grounded: a weapons school class, a Red Flag exercise,
international exercises, Aggressor units that train other pilots in air-to-air
combat, and even the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. Civilian Air Force
employees—everyone from analysts to groundskeepers to those who repair
parts—have endured unpaid furloughs. By mid-June, depot maintenance of 84
engines and 24 aircraft had been indefinitely postponed, and needed facilities
maintenance across much of the service was canceled.
While some units
were put back in the air after July 15 when Congress granted permission for
USAF to reprogram some of its funds, most grounded units were not so lucky.
Aircrews are trying to make gainful use of the unexpected downtime, but service
officials admit that some of the activities arranged for them amount to
busywork, as their fighting skills atrophy. “It’s ugly, right now,” Welsh said.
Donley, in an interview shortly before his June retirement as Air Force
Secretary, said the situation is nothing less than “a readiness crisis” from
which it will take many months to recover, even if the sequester is halted
before a new fiscal year begins next month.
readiness levels have declined steadily since 2003,” Welsh said in a late May
press conference. “We’ve been forced to put full-spectrum training on the back
burner to support the current fight. And we’ve also been trading readiness for
modernization for the past several years.” The Budget Control Act of 2011—which
created the sequester—“has driven us over the readiness cliff.”
Asked, in a June
interview, if the Air Force has fallen back to the days of the “hollow force,”
Welsh answered, “I think we’re there, now.”
took away 30 percent of the Air Force’s remaining Fiscal 2013 flying hour
funding. It also obliged the service to slash other operating expenses and
reduce the support it can give regional combatant commanders, all of whom have
been asked to accept fewer assets and take bigger risks in their theaters of
“We would like
to be at a readiness level of … 80 percent,” Field said in an interview.
Instead, by mid-June, less than 50 percent of the Air Force’s “primary fighting
forces”—fighter, bomber, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance units, and
command and control capabilities—were operating at desired readiness levels.
commanders are not receiving all the forces they think they need in order to
provide stabilizing presence in their regions,” he noted, adding, it’s a
“constant negotiation” with the COCOMs to see what requirements they can
posture was not that great going into the sequester,” Field said. For some
time, there haven’t been enough airmen to populate units to 100 percent
manning, “so I don’t have the required number of airmen on the flight line that
have the required skills levels” to marshal, handle, and repair aircraft. “I
don’t have the right amount of flight leads and instructor pilots, aircraft
commanders, or instructors in the squadrons.”
sequester hit, the priority was to ensure that those forces either in combat or
slated to deploy to Afghanistan or several other key areas overseas got top
priority, according to Air Combat Command chief Gen. G. Michael Hostage III.
“The strategy we
took … was to first look at the … Global Force Management Plan and see what it
takes to meet all of the operational requirements” of regional COCOMs. These
included “named operations” such as Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,
the nuclear mission, aerospace control alert in the US, as well as units
deployed in Korea and Japan.
It turned out, Hostage
said, “we were short, and we had to go back to the Air Staff and say, ‘You’ve
got to give us a little more money so I can at least meet” the Global Force
Management Allocation Plan. Planners found the money, “but I really don’t have
anything beyond the GFMAP,” he admitted.
ACC has taken on
risk in possible contingency operations, Hostage explained. “If Syria blows up,
or Iran blows up, or North Korea blows up, I don’t have a bunch of excess
forces I can immediately shift to that conflict. I’m going to have to pull them
from other places.”
The Air National
Guard and the Air Force Reserve are flying nearly their full planned flying
hour program because Congress allowed them the flexibility to reprogram funds
within the overall budget reduction. The Total Force units took money out of
base operating support and depot maintenance in order to keep flying, according
to a Guard Bureau spokeswoman.
The Active Duty
USAF, however, had no such flexibility at the outset and was compelled by
Congress to lop at least 10 percent off almost every account. But sequestration
demanded a full year’s spending cuts after half the fiscal year had already
passed, and USAF had already been shorted $1.8 billion in funds to pay for its
Afghanistan operations—money it had already been forced to rob from other
accounts. The 10 percent cut to flying operations thus quickly ballooned to a
30 percent reduction.
USAF was later
allowed to reprogram some of the base budget funds. It put $413 million toward
flying hours, but heavy damage had already been done.
he’s not relying on the Air Guard for his contingency capability. “What we are
doing is looking at using mobilization authority to have greater access to
Guard and Reserve forces,” he said. That is “very expensive,” though, and “if
sustained over a long period of time, we’ll likely have some political and
economic ramifications that may make it hard to continue that.” Nevertheless,
“we’re going to give that a try because I fundamentally don’t have enough
Active Duty operational forces to meet the requirement.”
testing has also stopped on everything except the F-22 and F-35. “You can’t
sacrifice the future completely,” Hostage said, and part of his job is ensuring
“there’s a future out there” for American airpower. In the meantime,
certification of new weapons and software for the legacy fleet will
Welsh said the reprogramming authority could
get seven squadrons flying at bare minimum rates back up to combat-ready
“If you’re going
to do a no-fly zone anywhere, you’re probably going to want your Air Force
suppression of enemy air defenses aircraft ready to go,” Welsh said. “But we
have some of them that have been parked since April. So if you want options,
you better bring some of the readiness back up on line.” Hostage concurred that
SEAD capability, in the form of F-16 Block 50s, must be one of the first
capabilities fished out of the sequester barrel.
“There was a lot
of pressure to not stand down any units,” Hostage said. “I was told, ‘Hey, just
fly them a little bit, fly them once or twice a month. That’ll be OK.’ I said,
‘No. That’s not safe.’ ”
There are only
three categories of readiness, he insisted: Air Force combat squadrons are
either “combat mission ready, basic mission capable [or] …grounded.”
“To try to fly
the whole force on the limited dollars that we had left meant I would be flying
somewhere well below [basic mission currency] across the fleet. That’s … a
completely unsafe way to do business.”
Hostage decided the right thing to do was to keep some fraction of his force
ready and stand down the rest. The Air Force has never before used this
approach, commonly referred to as “tiered readiness,” but Hostage believed it
was the only acceptable option.
This creates a
whole new set of problems. “In some scenarios, the entirety of the Air Force is
needed in the first 30 to 40 days,” Field explained. “That leaves you no time
to spin up to anything and everyone has to be ready to go immediately. ... We
don’t have excess capacity. We’re not ready to do everything. That’s not tiered
readiness. That’s being ‘not ready.’ ”
sequester-induced readiness crisis isn’t just affecting fighters and bombers.
Air Mobility Command is hard hit, as well. Gen. Paul J. Selva, AMC commander,
said in April that tanker operations would likely take a 40 percent flying hour
hit through the end of the fiscal year. “If you went to one of our bases today
and talked to a tanker crew you’d find they’re flying the airplane about once
every 30 days,” Selva told defense reporters at a roundtable discussion.
In the tanker
mission, AMC has ruled out any cross-country air refueling, Selva reported. “If
you need to move an airplane from the West Coast to the East Coast, and it’s
not on its way to Southwest Asia, we’ve already said no to those operations.”
tankers—along with C-130 operations not supporting wartime activities—are
funded by operation and maintenance accounts, subject to sequestration.
Afghanistan operations and several other kinds of activity, though, are
insulated from cuts.
AMC has a
secondary revenue stream known as the “transportation working capital fund,”
Selva explained. It involves users—US Central Command or the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF), for example—“buying our services. ... That’s
the resupply of Afghanistan, which cannot stop. So that is a secondary stream
of revenue that allows us to keep our crews current and qualified in that
Besides the war
effort, three other mobility missions are protected from sequestration cuts,
Selva noted. One is any movement of the President, with the small armada of
aircraft needed to move his vehicles, security, and command and control. A
second must-do category is the movement of special operations forces, both with
cargo aircraft and tankers to extend their range. Finally, AMC must support
nuclear operations—supporting bombers with tankers or transporting nuclear
That leaves a
wide variety of other missions AMC must say no to, Selva reported. Among these
are some airborne troop practice drops and other forms of training with the
with the Guard and Reserve, AMC paid for the annual spin-up training for crews
in the domestic firefighting mission, Selva said, with the proviso that the
“Department of Interior and Forestry agreed” to pay for the actual firefighting
In the area of
training, there was discussion of slowing or canceling undergraduate pilot
training or some of the “B” courses airmen take right after basic training, but
Field said, “We made a decision that we had to keep that training pipeline
fully funded and flowing.” He added, “This year.”
So what are the
idled airmen doing with their time?
that pilots are flying simulators “to the max extent possible. They’re doing a
lot of academics and mission planning, they’re doing professional military
education.” Many bases are putting together “broadening” programs for pilots to
see parts of the mission they wouldn’t normally, he noted. At JB
Langley-Eustis, Va., for example, pilots in the Active Duty F-22 squadrons
aren’t flying, but the associated Guard unit at the base is.
“That means the
maintenance on the flight line and in the back shops have to produce airplanes
for the Guard to fly,” Field explained. The Active Duty pilots can observe
these enabling activities and “get into very good detail of what it takes to
produce a sortie. … And it makes them better airmen and prepares them for
future leadership positions better.”
at totally grounded units are also quickly losing their skills. Engines on
grounded jets are run about every month and they get moved from time to time to
prevent flat spots from forming on the tires. Taxiing is permitted every two
months or so, but that’s it.
Welsh said he’s
well aware that maintenance crews have run through all the short-term
maintenance, probably have done all the long-term maintenance on their jets,
and now have little to do. “You can’t just accelerate training and catch up.”
getting intensive academics programs discussing the threats they’ll encounter
in future combat. Field also said aggressor squadrons are building “road shows” of air combat academics to teach
at grounded units.
sidelined by the sequester said that even the highest fidelity simulators do
not reproduce all the sounds, sights, sensations, and forces encountered on a
mission and are insufficient to maintain proficiency.
A Different Air
One F-16 pilot
said a simulator provides no sense of the danger and reality of a flying
mission, and “if I could talk to [the senior leadership], I’d hope they
understand this is in no way a substitute” for actual sorties. Moreover, “we
practice [dangerous situations] in the sim that you generally don’t do in the
aircraft, because you know you can walk away from it.” While certainly useful,
these exotic emergencies don’t really build day-to-day competence.
enlisted affected by the sequester have also been “strongly encouraged” to take
advantage of the downtime to complete professional military education and
schools, reconnect with your family, go to Disney World. … That’s what we’ve
been told,” said one airman. However, the extended time at home station is a
temporary benefit with many possible long-term costs, including competitiveness
for future promotions. “I don’t think there’s going to be a sticky note on my
file that says, … ‘Promote without required experience,’ ” he said.
acknowledged that gaps in flying and leadership experience are the unavoidable
by-product of sequestration and could affect retention before long.
He noted that
the second Fiscal 2013 Weapons School class at Nellis AFB, Nev., had to be
canceled, and it was a blow. “I’ll never recover that class,” Hostage said. If
he gets to hold Weapons School classes next year, those “bumped” from Class 13
Bravo might compete to attend, but “more than likely, … they will never get to
Field said the
effect is multiplied because the chosen few who go to Weapons School are then
expected to return to their units and be the teachers of their peers. The
cancellation starves units of that passed-along expertise.
somewhere around two-and-a-half times as much money to retrain a squadron as it
does to keep it trained,” Welsh said. It would take six months, at least, to
restore a squadron that’s lost its currency, according to Hostage, who added
that it’s urgent for Congress to—at a minimum—give the Air Force a budget total
it can plan for.
“I can’t even
use good, commonsense business practices to deal with the issues, because
politics won’t let me live within my means,” he asserted.
When asked what
happens if the sequester is not reversed and continues on into Fiscal 2014 and
beyond, senior USAF leaders all said the same thing: The Air Force will
“The Air Force
will look different,” Welsh said in the interview. “I think all the services
will look different.” Using the 10 percent sequester as a baseline, Welsh said
simple math would suggest a cut of some 33,000 airmen and some 700 aircraft
would be a likely starting point.
He couldn’t say
specifically where the cuts would come from, but acknowledged that a whole
fleet of aircraft could well disappear. Hostage agreed that it saves more money
to take out whole fleets because “not only do I save the money of those
squadrons and the parts and the pieces, but the whole logistics train that
supports it. That’s where the big savings are.”
This would have
cascading effects throughout the force as the service would then have to
retrain thousands of airmen, reduce the number in uniform—or both.
demands for airpower are not declining just because budgets are. Welsh noted
that “our readiness continues to decline, even while calls for potential no-fly
zones or air policing operations in response to Syrian violence are reaching a
While USAF is still the
best air force in the world, Welsh said, “atrophied skills elevate risk, and
stagnant proficiency will only grow over time if we can’t restore some sense of
budget normalcy. And so that’s what we’re hoping for.”