[SatNews] Painful budget reductions will reduce the future capabilities of combatant commanders, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III told Congress on March 26, 2014.
Testifying alongside Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Welsh discussed the difficult decisions budget constraints have presented and will continue to present to the Air Force's role in defending national security.
"Every major decision reflected in this budget proposal hurts," he said. "Each of them reduces the capabilities our combatant commanders would love to have and believe they need. Your Air Force is the finest in the world, and we need to keep it that way. We built this budget to ensure that Air Force combat power remains unequaled, but that does not mean it will remain unaffected."
There are no more easy cuts, the general said.
"We simply can't ignore the fact that the law is currently written [to return] us to sequestered funding levels in [fiscal year 2016]," Welsh said. "So that's also considered as part of our plan. To prepare for that, we must cut people and force structure now to create a balanced Air Force that we can afford to train and operate in [fiscal 2016] and beyond."
As the Air Force needed to cut billions rather than millions of dollars out of its budget, "the normal trimming around the edges just wasn't going to get it done," Welsh said. "So we looked at cutting fleets of aircraft as a way to get to the significant savings that are required," he added.
Welsh explained the logic of the "very tough decisions" that had to be made. "In our air superiority mission area, we already have reductions in our proposal," he said. "But eliminating an entire fleet would leave us unable to provide air superiority for an entire theater of operations. We are the only service that can do so."
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance constitute the No. 1 shortfall of the combatant commanders year after year, Welsh noted. "They would never support even more cuts than we already have in our budget proposal," he said.
Noting the Air Force has "several aircraft" in the global mobility mission area, Welsh said he spoke with Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno during budget planning to get his thoughts on reducing the airlift fleet.
"His view was that a smaller Army would need to be more responsive and able to move quicker," Welsh said. "He did not think that reducing airlift assets further was a good idea, and the [Air Force] secretary and I agree. We looked at our air refueling fleets and considered divesting the KC-10 as an option. Just one example, but the analysis showed us that the mission impact was too significant."
Welsh echoed testimony from James, who told the panel that a return to sequester funding levels in fiscal 2016 would put the mobility fleet back on the table. "We looked at the KC-135 fleet, but we would have to cut many more KC-135s than KC-10s to achieve the same savings," he said. "And with that many KC-135s out of the fleet, we simply can't meet our worldwide mission requirement."
In the strike mission area, Welsh said, cutting the A-10 fleet would save $3.7 billion across the future-year defense program and another $500 million in cost avoidance for upgrades that wouldn't be necessary. "To get that same savings would require a much higher number of F-15E's or F-16s [to be cut], but we also looked at those options," he added.
Air Force officials ran a detailed operational analysis, Welsh said, comparing divestiture of the A-10 fleet to divestiture of the B-1 fleet, reduction of the F-16 and F-15E fleet, and to deferring procurement of a large number of F-35s, as well as to decreasing readiness by standing down a number of fighter squadrons and just parking them on the ramp.
"We used the standard DOD planning scenarios," Welsh said. "The results very clearly showed that cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest-risk option, from an operational perspective, of a bunch of bad options. While no one is happy, from a military perspective, it's the right decision, and it's representative of the extremely difficult choices that we're facing in the budget today."
The U.S. military must modernize, Welsh said, but today's declining budgets place limits on modernization.
"And we must maintain the proper balance across all our mission areas," he added, "because that's what the combatant commanders expect from us."
Story by Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall, Jr., American Forces Press Service