Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said there’s a long list of core capabilities the service can’t afford to give up amidst budget cuts. But he’s not willing to tip his hand yet on what areas he is willing to cut back on.
Donley received enthusiastic applause from the audience at the Air Force Association’s annual convention Monday when he laid down several markers on programs he said must be protected from Pentagon spending reductions.
Some of them are big-ticket items like fighters and refueling tankers. Others are more philosophical, such as his pledge to keep an Air Force base of some kind in each of the 50 states.
“We will apply best military judgment to oppose reductions that would cause irreparable harm,” he said. “We are determined to set the right course, to make the right investments so that the Air Force evolves in positive directions, even with limited resources.”
Among the list of items the Air Force must protect, Donley included:
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: “There is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed,” he said.
Global mobility. To make sure the Air Force also can move military personnel, fuel and equipment anywhere around the world, the replacement of the aerial refueling tanker force, which has an average age of 49 years, must proceed, Donley said.
A new long-range bomber
The “triad” of sea-launched, land-launched and aircraft-dropped nuclear weapons.
Consolidating into fewer than the current three depots would imperil the Air Force’s skilled workforce, Donley said.
Unmanned drone programs
In a media briefing following the speech, a reporter suggested it appeared Donley was promising to protect funding for nearly all of the Air Force’s current and future capabilities.
Donley said his views were based on a complete review of the service’s missions. ” We have 12 core functions. There are none that we can just jettison,” he said. “Some are large, some are small, but there isn’t any part of our core function set that we can simply throw overboard.”
But that doesn’t mean the Air Force isn’t thinking about how it will meet the inevitable and ongoing call to save money, Donley said. All of the military services have submitted a range of options to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for ways to bring down the DoD budget, he added. The plans are tied to the Budget Control Act, which mandates reductions of $350 billion over the next 10 years from DoD’s projected spending.
“It’s not tied to a specific number, but it’s in the ballpark of what the debt deal eventually called for,” he said. “There are a number of proposals pending in the [office of the Secretary of Defense]that will need to be reviewed as part of our normal fall review, it’s just that the numbers are higher. The stakes are higher. The impact on strategy is also higher, so we’re having to take a closer look at the [Quadrennial Defense Review] assumptions.”
Where the Air Force might find savings, Donley suggested, is in cuts to its numbers of uniformed personnel. The service already has been operating over its Congressionally-authorized end strength this year, and has put in place several measures to reduce its numbers of officers and enlisted personnel.
Donley said budget factors will add to the pressure to reduce the number of airmen.
“We’ve made no final decisions about the final size of the Air Force, but we can see that certain parts of the Air Force might get smaller,” he said. “There’s pressure on the current size of the Air Force, which is about 332,000. It will be very difficult to hold that end strength going forward.”
The Air Force already has begun steps to reduce the number of officers it will have in the future. Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the superintendent of the Air Force Academy, said he was reducing the size of the school’s student body from 4,400 to 4,000 in response to instructions he received nearly a year ago.
“We’re on a glidepath to do that by the end of fiscal 2012,” he said. “We did most of that by bringing in a smaller class for the class of 2015. The class of 2016 will be even smaller.”
That will make an academy that’s already extremely competitive even more so.
“Our selection rate is less than one of every 10 applicants. Our odds will get tougher in the future. We will have plenty of applicants to choose from,” he said.
Donley said with up to 40 percent of the Air Force’s total costs coming from its personnel accounts, it’s impossible to take the category of retirement, salaries and healthcare off the table. Nonetheless, he said, the service can’t abrogate the promises that convinced its members to join the military in the first place.
“Our obligation to those who serve is to ensure that the compensation and benefits they earn are sustainable to the Air Force over the long haul,” he said. “Any potential changes to our military retirement system must be carefully considered to make sure we retain the highly-motivated and experienced workforce necessary to execute the Air Force mission.” He said that includes making sure current beneficiaries of DoD’s military pension system are grandfathered into any potential changes.
As part of the White House’s debt reduction proposal, the military would share the brunt of the changes federal employees would face to benefits.
The administration proposed changes to the TRICARE health plan for military retirees and families, including making recipients pay premiums and increased co-payments for medicine, similar to other health care plans. The president would leave further changes to a new military retiree benefits commission to decide upon.
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