While last year's Air Force Association Annual Air & Space Conference contained dire warnings over sequestration's impacts, this year's conference focused on the harsh reality of what needs to get cut. (Mike Morones / Staff)
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — One year ago, top US Air Force and industry leaders gathered at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference to warn of the dangers of sequestration. Speeches were focused on the drastic impact of across-the-board spending cuts and the thin hope that Congress would avert the disaster.
Last week, there was a sense of acceptance that the cuts are here to stay, and that tough choices are no longer just a theoretical necessity, but a new way of life. The overarching message coming from the Air Force was that in the new budget reality, something will have to give — and it will likely be single-role legacy platforms.
“If we go into [fiscal 2014] with sequestration still in effect, and we need to achieve those savings, you have to look at cuts,” said Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning. “You can’t get your money out of installations because they won’t support BRAC. You can’t get money out of people fast enough. It takes about a year to get savings out of people.
“If you try to fence off some of your priority programs, it puts a lot of pressure on that small part of the wedge,” he added. “You can’t get savings of the magnitude necessary by reducing all of your fleets. You have to take out some fleets entirely in order to get the whole tail that comes with it, in terms of savings.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters during the conference that he expects to operate under a continuing resolution for at least part of the year, and expects sequestration to continue. Because of that budget reality, cuts to legacy platforms are necessary.
“If you want to create savings with a ‘b’ instead of an ‘m,’ you need to get rid of a fleet,” Welsh said, referring to billions and millions. “Everything is on the table.”
Added Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command: “The only way you really save money is making entire weapon systems go away.”
While making it clear he would prefer not to choose between capacity and future capability, Hostage acknowledged that single-role platforms, such as the A-10 attack plane, face cuts.
“In a perfect world, I would have 1,000 A-10s,” Hostage said. “I can’t afford it. I can’t afford the fleet I have now. If I cut the fleet in half, do I save enough to get through this problem?
“My view is, while I don’t want to do it, I would rather lose the entire fleet and save everything I do in the infrastructure.”
In comparison, Hostage indicated he would fight to maintain at least part of the F-15C fleet.
“I don’t have enough air superiority capability as it is, so I’d be desperately in trouble if I got rid of an entire fleet of F-15Cs. So that’s probably not likely,” he said. At the same time, “I’m not saying that we wouldn’t get rid of some.”
Cuts need to be done in a strategic fashion in order to thread the needle between saving money and destroying capacity. Gen. Paul Selva, head of Air Mobility Command, held up potential KC-10 cuts as an example.
The KC-46 tanker replacement program is designed to replace the KC-135 fleet. But if the decision is made to cut the KC-10 entirely, one option would be to use the new KC-46s to replace them.
“You could envision an option where as the KC-46 delivers, the KC-10 retires,” Selva said. “Most of these are not binary decisions.”
Part of the reason for vertical cuts is the need to fund newer platforms, particularly F-35 joint strike fighters, KC-46s, and long-range bombers, identified as the three top modernization priorities for the service.
Welsh held up that trio for much of the year as the programs that must be protected at all costs. If that is the first tier of modernization, Welsh said, the second tier would include the T-X trainer replacement program and the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).
“The medium-altitude ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] fleet has to be recapitalized. Right now, there’s not a plan to do that. We think the first thing we need to do is recapitalize JSTARS,” Welsh said. “That intelligence has been phenomenally successful.”