WASHINGTON — With sequestration likely to continue into next year, the acting secretary of the US Air Force is warning that deep cuts to readiness and modernization are coming.
“What really suffers is readiness. That’s been a very hard thing to describe,” Eric Fanning told a crowd Nov. 18. “We’re going to have a real hole in our readiness accounts the next five years if we stay under the sequestered numbers. So there’s a lot of risk there.”
Like its sister services, the Air Force is developing two budgets, one that accounts for sequestration and one without. But Fanning said that unlike the Army and Navy, the Air Force is preparing its worst-case scenario as the baseline.
“I don’t really talk about the other budget. I call it the tease budget,” Fanning said. “When I’m talking about budgets, I’m talking about sequestered.”
As a result, the service expects to get pushback on its cuts from the Pentagon, White House and the Hill.
“There’s a lot in there not to like” in the Air Force budget, Fanning said, adding that the service is looking to cut 550 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.
“If sequester is the new norm, the sooner we start dealing with it, the sooner we can get to stability,” he said.
The service has identified, and acted to protect, three key modernization programs: the KC-46 tanker replacement, the long-range strike bomber, and the F-35 joint strike fighter. Everything else is on the table.
And even with the service trying to protect the F-35, the fifth-generation fighter will still see an impact under a sequestered budget.
Up to 24 of the fighters could be pushed into the future over the five-year period covered in the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), Fanning said. Those delays are planned in the sequestered ALT-POM, but the secretary noted that if buys increase from partner nations and drive the cost per fighter down, the service would attempt to buy some of those planes back.
“It’s our priority buyback,” Fanning said.
While both the Navy and Marines will be purchasing JSFs, the Air Force intends to purchase significantly greater quantities of its F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant. Because of that, the decisions by the sister services will have less impact on the cost than any delays by the Air Force.
“What we found in analyzing what the Navy does is the Air Force is leading the buy,” Fanning said. “The others are kind of riding off of us. The good news is it means we are less affected by what they do.”
In addition to the three key modernization programs, the service has acted to protect certain missions more than others. On example Fanning used was strategic lift.
“We recognize how important strategic lift is to plans going forward, so right now it is a protected investment for us,” Fanning said. While that doesn’t mean the mission is totally safe from cuts, the importance placed on strategic lift by the other services means it takes priority for the Air Force.
In turn, the need to protect strategic lift is driving potential reductions to other Air Mobility Command programs, notably air refueling missions, where cuts to the KC-10 are being discussed.
The secretary noted that space programs are also taking a less-than-proportional cut.
Classified programs will be taking a “relatively proportional” cut as well, according to Fanning.
“We’re taking a real close look on the classified side to make sure that our investments are aligned and we’re not missing opportunities there to take cuts on the unclassified side, and vice-versa,” he said. “There were some shifts, but nothing overly major at this point.”