ORLANDO, Fla. — The official theme was “Airmen, Mission and Innovation.” But at last week’s Air Warfare Symposium, put on by the Air Force Association (AFA), it may as well have been “Sequestration and Panic.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, set the tone early when he told attendees that cuts caused by sequestration are “significant, they’re deep, they’re gonna hurt, and they change the way we see the future. That’s what’s coming.”
Modernization and readiness stand to suffer under the cuts, although “we have no idea” what shape that could take. Welsh offered up potential delays to the new long-range bomber and cyber software as examples of long-term projects that could take a hit.
Training also will be affected under sequestration. By mid-May, Welsh said, training will be “lower than acceptable,” and large-scale training missions such as Red Flag will have to be canceled.
The general praised the civilian force, which faces a collective “31.5 million” hours of furloughs. Each civilian worker faces up to 22 days of furloughs. Welsh said 40 percent of the cyber and 50 percent of the space force is civilian and that those areas will likely suffer.
Speaking on Feb. 22, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said he could not recall a process “as dysfunctional” as the one taking place around sequestration. The Air Force is bracing for an 18 percent reduction in flying hours, which Donley said would dramatically threaten readiness.
Talking with reporters after his speech, Donley stressed the secondary and tertiary effects of making budget cuts. For example, fewer dollars could lead to longer time between depot visits.
At the same time, those depots could be backlogged because workers were being furloughed, slowing the process even further, he said.
Despite their dire warnings, both Welsh and Donley tried to put a positive spin on things in front of the fiercely pro-Air Force crowd. The chief highlighted a number of individual stories of bravery by airmen, while Donley insisted the glass was “more than half full” thanks to those airmen.
Major Programs Threatened
Both the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 tanker are threatened by sequestration, Air Force officials said.
The Air Force is looking to drop three F-35s from its planned buy in 2013 of 19. But top brass insisted the plan is still to reach 1,763 of the fifth-generation jets.
“Given our current strategy that we are required to execute, the Air Force thinks that is the right number of F-35s to execute that strategy,” Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief of staff for operations, planning and requirements, told reporters.
“If the strategy changes or something else changes, maybe we will have to re-evaluate. But given what we’re tasked to do right now in light of that strategy, 1,763 is the right number for the Air Force,” he said.
“Any advancement in some kind of capabilities we may have to fight is obviously worrisome,” but the 1,763 figure has not been changed by the development of new top-line fighters from China and Russia, Field said. He argued those developments show the need for America to have the advanced F-35 systems.
Later in the day, Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, offered a full-throated endorsement of the F-35.
“My job is to worry about operational effective power. I worry about it now; I worry about it when my grandkids are worried about this country,” Hostage said during the day’s closing panel. “I think we owe it to them to have a path to maintaining this, our strength and our capability for the long term. My view of that is a fleet of 1,763 Air Force F-35s.”
On Feb. 21, the head of Air Force Mobility Command acknowledged that the Air Force might have to renegotiate its KC-46 contract due to sequestration but described it as an absolute last resort the service would try desperately to avoid.
“It is possible we will have to reopen the contract, although we will do everything we can not to,” Gen. Paul Selva said. “We literally have to run out of money” for the contract to be re-competed, he added.
When asked whether the Air Force had opened preliminary discussions with Boeing in case there had to be a renegotiation, Selva said, “No. None that I know of.”
Selva also said he could see no scenario in which the Air Force reverses course and decides to keep the C-27 cargo plane. Although the planes are “no longer viable” for the service, he said there have been preliminary discussions about who might be interested in taking the cargo planes off the Air Force’s hands.
An AFA spokeswoman said just fewer than 650 people registered for the conference, a total that includes Air Force personnel, exhibitors and reporters. That number is in line with attendance in 2012, she said.
However, exhibitions were down by nearly 40 percent compared with last year, and the hall was notably quiet for large stretches of the conference.
Part of that dip is due to the lack of Defense Department exhibitors, but the corporate presence was unquestionably smaller than in previous years.
Alenia Aermacchi’s North American operation reportedly pulled out of the show shortly before doors opened, leaving a prime spot by the entrance unoccupied. A company spokesman did not provide a comment by presstime.
Conference organizers filled the space, marked in programs as belonging to “Team T-100,” with couches. The head of the North American arm of the Italian company was replaced this month.
In contrast, Beechcraft treated the event as a coming-out party, featuring a large three-screen cockpit simulator for its AT-6 design.
The company, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy days before the show, is competing to win a contract to outfit the Afghanistan military with light combat aircraft. That contract is expected to be announced this week.