The $3 Billion Shave

July 1, 2005

Even after receiving a healthy midyear boost, the Air Force’s budget will come nowhere close to meeting USAF’s financial needs—and closing the gap will cause serious pain.

President Bush, with US troops in action around the world, recently signed an $82 billion supplemental bill that aims to replace worn-out equipment and pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. USAF received $5.6 billion of that amount.

It’s not nearly enough, however. USAF projects that its “must pay” operation and maintenance (O&M) bills will still exceed its newly expanded budget by a whopping $3 billion.

The Air Force responded with something resembling a full austerity plan. Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff, said that a spending slowdown is needed and, on May 10, distributed a list of places at which commanders should look for savings.

In order of priority, the major commands were to:

  • Cancel noncritical travel.
  • Cancel noncritical supply and equipment purchases.
  • Limit contract lengths and defer new requirements.
  • Limit property maintenance to safety items.
  • Slow down hiring.
  • Cancel changes to readiness spares packages.
  • Reduce contractor logistics support to minimum levels.
  • Reduce depot equipment purchases to minimum levels.
  • “Reduce and reflow” peacetime flying hours.

The instructions are designed to free up funding to support wartime demands and Stateside combat preparations, but these changes will clearly come at a cost.

Jumper wrote that officials at Air Force headquarters “understand the risk to readiness from these actions.” He went on to say, “It is important to balance the need for sufficient savings against mission requirements in a way that is … mindful of longer-term consequences.”

“Accept Degradation”

Officials preparing real property maintenance projects, for example, are instructed to “accept degradation of quality of life.”

Air Combat Command officials said much of the savings in its command will come by cutting flying hours, a move they say will surely damage readiness.

Units preparing to deploy to combat zones have priority funding, as do career fields that cannot put off training at this time. ACC “fenced” the funding for a handful of accounts.

The top priority is maintaining funding for deploying and returning Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) personnel, to “protect AEF combat capability,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth M. DeCuir, ACC operations director, in a May 16 press release.

The second-highest priority was providing support for the new F/A-22 fighter units coming into the force.

The Air Force has also elected to protect funding for E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircrews. The E-3 AWACS crews are still recovering from a long period of overuse as they supported numerous operations. They simply cannot go any longer without a healthy dose of training to reconstitute their skills, officials said.

Also protected were O&M funds used for testing and training accounts and Thunderbird operations. The Thunderbirds, USAF’s aerial demonstration team, have a relatively small budget line but have a “huge impact on Air Force recruiting,” said Col. Jim Dunn, deputy chief of flight operations for ACC.

After selected accounts were fenced, the command looked at everything else with a “clean sheet of paper” and tried to spread the pain equally.

“This is going to hurt,” Dunn said. “We will see decreases in readiness status.”

Hardest hit will be funding for “average” fighter and bomber units, which represent essentially the entire nonfenced category. These units face a 60 percent cut in flying hours for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Making these cuts to Stateside operations is “definitely not where we want to be,” he said.

Overall, ACC flying hours will fall by 10 percent.

DeCuir estimated that the hardest-hit units will be able to preserve 60 to 80 percent of their combat readiness through focused training. F-16 and B-52 squadrons not scheduled to deploy, for instance, will likely fly just enough to ensure they can remain safe and efficient.

No Easy Moves

Unfortunately, Dunn said, there is not “a single instance where we can say … ‘just put this aircraft and its airmen on the ramp’?” for the summer.

The situation is similar at each of USAF’s other major commands. Jumper noted that “most of these slowdown actions are already under way,” as he had previously notified the majcoms, in a March memo, that these actions would probably be needed. (See “Aerospace World: USAF Faces $3 Billion Shortage,” May, p. 20.)

ACC’s share of the O&M funding shortage is $825 million for the fiscal year. In addition to $750 million in unfunded Global War on Terror expenses, ACC needed another $75 million for other unexpected “must pay” bills.

As force provider for US Central Command Air Forces, ACC is responsible for operating 14 air bases in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. Meanwhile, fuel, munitions, spare parts, and equipment are all being used—and used up—at a rate much faster than normal.

Jumper also instructed the majcoms to “continue tuition assistance for now and fund civilian pay to a level that precludes furloughs.”

Col. David J. Goossens, ACC comptroller, told Air Force Magazine that the command followed the Chief of Staff’s guidance for the cuts, but still had to dig deep into flying hours to make ends meet. Goossens said the command:

  • Increased use of teleconferencing to reduce noncritical travel, for a savings of $6.5 million.
  • Deferred contract renewals, such as putting off additional corrosion inspections for B-1 bombers until next year. This saved $20 million.
  • Reduced buys of noncritical supplies and equipment, for a savings of $59.8 million.
  • Scaled back real property and facilities spending, including delaying improvements to the air operations center at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. This saved $131.9 million.
  • Deferred contractor logistics support, taking to the minimum sustainable level support for the F-117 stealth fighter, U-2, and RC-135. These actions freed up $47.5 million.
  • Postponed some noncritical depot maintenance across the board, freeing $200 million.
  • ACC was also forced to cut $272 million from the flying hour budget.

Overall, the actions gathered $738 million of the $825 million needed, either through actual savings (teleconferencing) or pushing expenses into the next fiscal year (deferring maintenance).

Goossens said ACC could make up the difference by pulling $79 million from formal training unit accounts used to hone rated officer skills and by canceling $8 million in tuition assistance, but the command has been instructed—for the time being—not to make these cuts. ACC is awaiting further guidance.

It is possible that USAF will provide additional “bridge” funding, but ACC is not expecting it to come through.

Plans call for a two-week shutdown of almost all training flights between Sept. 16 and Oct. 1, Goossens said. The move is not as drastic as it may seem. The command typically scales back flight operations at that time of year to hold flight safety days and to reduce the chance of inadvertently shooting past the year’s flying hour budget.

In late May, Congress was debating the merits of an additional $50 million bridge supplemental to pay for additional wartime expenses. Some lawmakers were opposed to the measure because they felt it allowed the Defense Department to obtain funding for ongoing operations through so-called emergency supplementals, which typically have less accountability and oversight than the President’s budget.