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SecAF addresses budget challenges in Congress

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Newly-appointed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James wanted to see the Air Force in action, so she spent her first 11 weeks on the job visiting 18 bases in 13 states, she told members of the House Armed Services Committee March 14.

Getting outside the Pentagon let her observe three things, James said: Air Force leaders at all levels are tackling tough issues, Airmen are demonstrating “superb” total-force teamwork, and they’re enthusiastic about their service to the nation despite serving in challenging times.

The Air Force is doing its very best to tackle head-on the challenges posed by the security environment and declining budgets, the secretary said.

 “In the (fiscal 2015) budget, we do have a strategy-driven budget, but let's face facts,” James said. “We're severely, severely limited by the fiscal choices that are contained in the Budget Control Act and the Bipartisan Budget Act.”

The Air Force kept its 2015 budget request at the target amount contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2014, she said, and is still in need of the additional funds allotted to the Air Force in President Barack Obama’s Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.

“This is a $26 billion initiative across DOD,” James said. “For us in the Air Force, it's about $7 billion. And we will, if we are granted these additional funds, spend them principally on readiness and other key investments to get us back closer to where we want and need to be.”

More difficult decisions lie ahead in fiscal 2016, the secretary said, as the service seeks to balance current readiness with future relevance. “I'm pretty sure … we're not going to make everybody happy. … There were no elements of low-hanging fruit in this budget,” she said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out the strategy imperatives for the services in his budget request, James said.

“We need to defend the homeland against all strategic threats," she said. "We need to build security globally by protecting U.S. influence and deterring aggression. And we need to remain prepared to win decisively against any adversary should deterrence fail."

Today’s Air Force is critically important to all of those elements, the secretary said.

“But there's also tomorrow,” she added.

New technologies and new centers of power will lead to a more volatile and unpredictable world, one in which American dominance of the sky and of space can’t be taken for granted, James told the lawmakers.

The Air Force is grateful for the greater stability and the additional funding in fiscal 2014, James said, and the additional stability in the fiscal 2015 budget request. But, she noted, the added funds don’t solve all of the Air Force’s problems.

“Even with those bump-ups, there were difficult tradeoffs that had to be made, because the 2015 top line and beyond is a whole lot less than we ever thought possible just a few short years ago,” the secretary said.

Strategy and budget rarely match up, she said, and that’s true of this year’s budget request as well.

“In general, our decisions reduce capacity in order to gain capability,” James said.

And, the growth of compensation will slow in order to free up funds for readiness, she said. 

“We chose to delay or terminate some programs to protect higher-priority programs -- at least what we thought were higher priorities,” she said. “And we sought cost savings in a number of ways: reducing headquarters (and) putting us on a glide path to greater reliance on the Guard and Reserve.”

The Air Force’s priorities -- taking care of people, balancing today's readiness with tomorrow's readiness, and ensuring that the nation has the very best Air Force that it possibly can at the best value for the taxpayer -- set the framework for its budget decisions, James said.

“Everything comes down to people, as far as I'm concerned,” the secretary said. This means recruiting and retaining the best people and developing them once they’re in the force, she said.

It also includes diversity of thought and background among decision-makers, dignity and respect for all, and making sure that everybody is on top of and leading and living the service’s core values, James said. And, she added, “it means fair compensation going forward.”

The Air Force is getting smaller, but it must be shaped to meet strategic priorities, she said.

“We have certain categories and specialty areas where we have too many people,” she said. “And then we have other categories and specialty areas where we have too few people. So in addition to bringing numbers down somewhat, we need to rebalance and get into sync.”

Balancing the readiness of today with the readiness of tomorrow will take some time, she said. Sequestration knocked the service off course, so funding flying hours and other readiness issues were a high priority in the Air Force budget request, the secretary said.

The three top ones, she added, are the joint strike fighter, the new aerial refueling tanker program and the long-range strike bomber.

In addition, the Air Force remains committed to the nuclear triad, James said.

“But of course, in order to do the readiness of today and these key investments for tomorrow, that's where we came down to: What are going to reduce? Where can we take some what we think are the most prudent risks?”

The Air Force will retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft, James said.

“That is, I know, an extremely controversial area. … But I want you to know we are absolutely committed to the close air support mission,” she told the panel. “We will not let it drop.”

The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft also will be retired, she said, but the Air Force will retain the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aerial system.

“Having both fleets together would be terrific, but it's not affordable,” James said.

Combat air patrols with MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial systems will grow slightly, the secretary said. But, she noted, the MQ-1 Predator will be retired over time, to be replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper.

“By making these tough choices today, again, we think we're going to preserve our combat capability and make each taxpayer dollar count better for the future,” she said.

To ensure taxpayers are receiving the greatest value for their money, acquisition programs must stay on budget and on schedule, James said. And, she added, a round of base closures is needed, as requested by the defense secretary, to begin in 2017.

A return to sequestration in fiscal 2016, as is required under current legislation, would compromise national security, James said.

“This would mean the retirement of up to 80 more aircraft, including the KC-10 (Extender) tanker fleet," she said. "We would choose to defer upgrades to the Global Hawk that we would need to make otherwise, to make it more on parity with the U-2. … We would have to retire the Global Hawk Block 40."

In addition, purchase of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter would slow, the secretary said. “And we would have to probably re-evaluate the combat rescue helicopter and a whole host of other things, she added. Sequestration is not a good deal for the Air Force, and it's not a good deal for the country, James said.

 The Air Force may shrink, the secretary said, but it’s committed to being capable, innovative and ready.

“We're committed to being a good value for the taxpayer, making every dollar that we spend count, able to respond overseas as well as here at home when disaster strikes us,” James said. “We'll be more reliant -- not less, but more reliant -- on our National Guard and Reserve, and we will be fueled by the very best airmen on the planet.”
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