WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s two top officials issued a dire warning Thursday that if budget sequestration returns, it would “break” a service already stretched dangerously thin.

Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told reporters that with the service at its current size, the budget cutting mechanism would devastate its capability.

Both started a Thursday briefing with reporters by calling on Congress to fix the budget situation, with Wilson calling repealing sequestration the “most important” thing the Hill can do to help the military.

Goldfein said it is time for the Hill to “turn off the autopilot and get back in control of the budget.”

“If we cannot move past sequester in its current form, we’re going to break this force,” Goldfein added.

At the core of the Air Force’s concerns: The service ended fiscal year 2017 about 2,000 pilots short of the 20,000 minimum needed, meaning roughly one in ten pilot spots currently is empty. And given that the last round of sequestration massively cut flying hours, with almost a third of planes grounded, Wilson is concerned a return would have lasting repercussions.

“If we go through sequester again, a 2,000 pilot shortage will be a dream. People will walk,” Wilson said. “We need to lift sequestration.”

The call to remove sequestration is nothing new, however, with officials from every service regularly issuing warnings. Asked if this was the year that Congress could come together and find a long-term solution to the budget issues, Wilson hesitated before acknowledging the complicated nature of the Hill.

“I have been a member of Congress, and so I know probably not to speculate on these things. There are a lot of factors that will go into this,” she said. “I think the obligation we have here is to try to constantly explain and clearly explain why we have to do this, why we have to lift sequestration in its current form.”

The best thing the service and its supporters can do, she said, is to continue to emphasize to Congress the dangers.

“It is not really about my belief. My responsibility is to explain [to Congress to] take this off cruise-control and drive this, and trust the Congress to make those decisions,” Wilson added.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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