Thursday, January 17, 2013

Air Force Prepares for Sequester

The Air Force Magazine Online reports that Air Force leaders issued a directive to the major commands on Monday intended to soften the blow of budget sequestration, said Acting Undersecretary of the Air Force Jamie Morin. "We've moved from planning and analysis to directing at least a subset of actions," said Morin during an AFA-sponsored Air Force breakfast program address in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 15. 

The new guidance is based on a Jan. 7 memo that Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh sent to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The memo outlined the potential steps that the Air Force could take to lessen the impact of the budget sequester if it takes effect in March and the Defense Department also continues to operate under a continuing resolution, which keeps funding at Fiscal 2012 levels. Morin acknowledged that any actions that the Air Force takes will do little to prevent further severe cuts and readiness reductions if Congress does not resolve the double threat of sequestration and the continuing resolution by then.

The two-month delay to the start of budget sequestration sets up the situation where the United States—and the Pentagon—could face three major budget issues in March. Under the language of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which became law on Jan. 2, sequestration, with its significant budget cuts, is scheduled to hit the Pentagon and other federal departments on March 1. Meanwhile, at or around the same time—in late February or early March—the Treasury Department will run out of options to avoid breaching the federal debt limit, thereby raising the danger of a default.  On top of that is the fact that the continuing resolution that is currently funding the federal government at Fiscal 2012 levels expires on March 27.

Budget sequestration will severely damage Air Force readiness if it is triggered on March 1, states a memo last week from the service's leadership to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter. According to the memo, signed by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force can no longer simply hope Congress will avoid the postponed sequester and is therefore taking steps to blunt the effects, which in any case will have "immediate and devastating impacts to readiness."

Since combat units must have top priority, the Air Force will apply the mandated spending cuts to any units not in Afghanistan or spooling up to go there, "sacrificing preparedness for contingencies or [operations plans]," states the memo. The 18-percent reduction would be applied "disproportionately across the force," causing some units to "stand down for extended periods," with a possible "flying ‘standdown’ from late July through September.”

The sequestration effects described in the memo sent by the Air Force leadership to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week assume that the service immediately takes some cost-cutting steps, but which can only slightly dampen the pain. Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh described 10 steps in the memo that they would take to minimally blunt the devastation.

These include notifying civilians of a furlough as soon as possible; implementing a hiring freeze; reviewing items in the overseas contingency operations account to "identify potential deferments"; canceling all temporary duty assignments, conferences, and symposia; halting any public-relations flying, such as airshows or memorial flyovers; curtailing purchases of office supplies, furniture, and fresh IT gear; deferring any real property maintenance by half; de-obligating or incrementally funding contracts to encompass only Fiscal 2013; and selectively halting or delaying contracts "to reduce expenditures."

The Air Force leadership must take “prudent guidance” to prepare for the possibility of a defense-wide $45 billion sequestration taking effect on March 1. The guidance will help the major commands "minimize the harmful effects" of cutting as much as 18 percent to 20 percent of the Defense Department's Fiscal 2013 budget in the last two quarters of the fiscal year. Measures that the Air Force could take to brace itself for the unprecedented short-notice spending cuts include: a civilian hiring freeze; a freeze on real property maintenance and travel; postponing small-scale purchases such as furniture and replacement IT gear; and, as a last resort, diminished flying hours and aircraft maintenance.

The services have been directed to pick cuts that are "adjustable and reversible," meaning readiness would be affected first and long-term programs last. Civilian pay is "40 percent of the Air Force operations and maintenance" line item and so would certainly be affected. 

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said "we will steel ourselves" for if sequester takes effect; there's no way to avoid some hollowing of the force.

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