UPDATED: Added Capitol Hill Reaction
AFA Winter, Orlando: Imagine if someone told you 70 percent of all American combat aircraft would not be ready to fly in time of war by July. That’s just what Air Force Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told some 600 people attending the Air Force Associations’s annual winter conference this morning will happen should the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration occur.
[Click here for our coverage of sequestration and continuing resolution impacts on military readiness across all the services: the Army, the Marines, the Navy, and further Air Force impacts.]
This means 70 percent of all fighters (and MAYBE Remotely Piloted Aircraft and bombers — except those for nuclear missions and aircraft in ongoing operations –we’re checking) will be unready to go to war.
Welsh was careful to note that the service would protect all “named operations,” so this doesn’t appear to mean that troops in Afghanistan will go without air cover, but it should send a very clear message to those in Congress who continue to cling to entrenched positions that they risk gutting the combat capability of the military we spend so much to build and maintain.
The degradation will begin May 1, when flying hours will begin to get chopped, Welsh said.
But a congressional aide noted that the Air Force has been on a downward readiness slide for years, taking money from operations and maintenance to pay for new weapons such as the F-35.
“I think if you ask the AF today, if normal funding were to be assumed through July, about 40-50% of American combat aircraft would only be capable of meeting wartime requirements. So no, it’s not surprising that only 30% would be available in July with restricted funding,” the aide said in an email. “Over the past 10 years, the AF has taken risk in its O&M accounts (flying hour program and depot maintenance activities) in order to pay for modernization (mainly F-35 which has been sapping their funding), and those incurred risks that Gen Welsh’s predecessors thought were worth taking have now become issues current AF leadership has to address and fund now.”
The Continuing Resolution — a stopgap spending bill — currently in force will mean the Air Force ends up short $12.4 billion in fiscal 2013 for the base budget, and $1.8 billion in the war operations budget, known as Overseas Contingency Operations, the Air Force chief said.
Welsh didn’t stop there. He said the CR would mean that the Air Force would have to shell out an additional $1 billion to buy a second Space-based Infrared System satellite. Why? Satellites are much cheaper to buy in groups because of the cost of buying components in advance and because of the high cost of the very skilled labor. If Congress does not pass a defense appropriations bill for 2013 the service will have to delay the planned purchase of the second satellite and that will drive up the cost.
He noted the Air Force will also have to buy three fewer F-35s in fiscal 2013. And the CR and sequestration will also mean delays to the highly complex software that is key to the plane’s combat capabilities. Those delays will put at risk the date for Initial Operating Capability, a politically sensitive milestone, Welsh said.
[Updated 4 p.m. Thursday]