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Budget Anxiety Softens at This Year's AFA Meeting

Feb. 22, 2014 - 02:59PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
The KC-10 has been identified as a platform likely to be eliminated for budgetary purposes, but the service could delay that by two years. (Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/Air Force)
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ORLANDO, FLA. — Last year’s US Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium had a funereal quality to it. The inevitability of sequestration was still sinking in, and service officials were struggling with uncertainty about what the future may look like.

Luckily for the Air Force, a lot can change in a year. This year’s edition of the show, held Feb. 20-21 in Orlando, Fla., had a very different vibe.

It’s not optimism — not quite yet. Service and industry officials alike are all quick to acknowledge challenges still lie ahead. But knowing that the budget will be stable for fiscal 2014 and 2015 seems to have given the Air Force a chance to stop, regroup and look toward the future rather than just treading water.

“We have some temporary relief under the bipartisan budget act, but it’s temporary, and it’s still a very, very challenging environment — although we’re extremely grateful to have that respite that we have,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during the conference.

The service is using the budget certainty to take a critical look at itself, particularly how it handles force structure and long-term strategy.

“The question for us is, what’s next?” asked Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff. “I don’t know. We’ve got to figure it out, and we need to figure it out quick.”

To do that, Welsh has commissioned a massive strategy review that will tie up all the strategy and mission reviews of the past few years.

“This is what we’ve been missing,” Welsh said. “We need a strategy, and we’ve needed one for a while. So we’re writing it, it will be done by June. I don’t know what it’s going to say yet. I have thoughts, as do the people who are working it. We’ll talk to you about it in June.”

Welsh did say the review will include a look toward the next 30 years of the service, in order to avoid getting stuck in the problems of today. The overall report will be reviewed every two years and updated every four years to keep it relevant.

The chief took the first step in changing how the service does strategy with a shakeup at the Air Staff level.

The reorganization splits both Operations, Plans and Requirements (A3/5) and Strategic Plans and Programs (A8). The new Operations (A3) directorate will stand alone, while the planning staffs will form a new A5/8 directorate.

Additionally, the current budget responsibilities from A8 will be merged with the service’s financial management arm.

“Part of the attempt is to separate the day-to-day budget thrash that you have to do in the government,” Welsh explained. “If our whole system is constantly reacting that way, then we get that way in the way we program for the long term. So we need another set of people who are looking at a strategy, a plan to meet that strategy and a long-range resource plan that supports that effort.”

And more changes are likely, James said.

“Stay tuned because this particular organizational change is an important one, but it is part of a larger story,” she said, noting that it ties into Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s guidance to cut headquarters staff by 20 percent over the next five years.

“We, in the Air Force, have been looking at how to achieve that,” James said. “There’s a whole series of things that we’ve looked at as part of this approach. I think what you will see is we’re trying to do better than 20 percent, that’s overall savings in dollar figures, and our goal is to do it more quickly than the five years the SecDef asked us to do it in.”

Both Welsh and James emphasized that the reserve and guard components will have a growing importance in the coming years.

The financial stability lasts only until 2016, when sequestration-imposed budget cuts begin anew. This presents the service with a somewhat odd choice: Take the funding gained back for 2014 and 2015 and use it to defer cuts, or make the drastic cuts now and get it over with.

“It has allowed us to defer some of the decisions we thought we would have to take sooner rather than later,” one senior Air Force official said. “As long as [sequestration] remains law, and no effort is made to change it, essentially what it does is put us in the position to say we may have the opportunity to defer some of the decisions we thought we would have to make, to push them two years to the right, but that’s the best we can possibly do.”

The service is looking seriously at taking manpower cuts now, rather than deferring them, the official said.

“The longer we carry manpower that we are reasonably sure we don’t need, the bigger the bill is,” he said. “Essentially, if you wait for every force structure decision, you’re doomed to that process. We know what we think the force structure is going to look like in 2019, let’s get ourselves on a vector to that point.”

In contrast, the service could delay cuts to programs such as the KC-10 by a year or two. The KC-10 has been identified as a platform likely to be eliminated for budgetary purposes, but if the service can delay that by two years, it would get that much closer to the new fleet of KC-46A Pegasus tankers that could fill that gap.

“It’s actually better if you can do it to get things done more quickly rather than more slowly. It’s easier on people that way, so people will know what to expect,” James said. “Dragging it out sometimes is harder on people.”

The chief’s message to keep an eye to the future seems to have permeated. Air Force officials were openly talking about future platforms and requirements. Panels featured talk of the new long-range strike bomber and what it might require, as well as open acknowledgment that the service needs to start thinking about a sixth-generation fighter and follow-on tanker, despite the F-35 and KC-46A still being several years away from achieving operation. ■

Email: amehta@defensenews.com.

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