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VCSAF: Military readiness unsustainable under sequestration

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Leaders from all branches of the armed forces testified on the readiness of each service during hearings of both the House and Senate Armed Forces Committees March 25 and 26.

The vice chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps shared concerns about America’s military readiness to meet immediate requirements but inability to sustain a contingency under sequestration.

“We have already delayed major modernization efforts, cut manpower and reduced training,” said Gen. Larry Spencer, the vice chief of staff of the Air Force. “The capability gap that separates us from other air forces is narrowing. That gap will close even faster under (the Budget Control Act) levels of funding.”

The Air Force’s Fiscal Year 2016 President’s Budget submission aims to balance operational training and modernization commitments, he explained, but even this funding is just enough to get by.

“We will have to make some difficult choices to balance capacity, capability and readiness, all of which have already been cut to the bone,” Spencer said. “Even at this level, it will take years to recover lost readiness.”

Air Force combat air forces are currently less than 50 percent ready, due to sequestration-level funding in 2013, he said. These forces include fighter and bomber squadrons, as well as the support infrastructures necessary to maintain and operate these aircraft. Spencer highlighted a further strain on the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission area.

“Right now we have been in a position of surge (in ISR) since 2007, that’s not the definition of a surge,” he said. “We’ve got (remotely-piloted aircraft) pilots we’ve worked to the point where we’re worried if they’ll stay. The ops tempo that we’re under now has not allowed us to bring where we are down low enough so we can train and get ready to go again.”

The possibility of a larger overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget was discussed and all service leaders agreed the inflexibility of OCO funds and the unpredictability of a year-to-year budget made it a less-desirable solution than funding the base budget. For the Air Force in particular, OCO funds only allow the service to buy back munitions already used, instead of procuring munitions needed for future engagements.

“Planning is a really big deal, particularly procurement,” Spencer said. “If we’re going to buy a really big weapon system, pay for F-35s or do a multi-year of C-130s, that’s really difficult to do if you’re trying to do that a year at a time.”

The Air Force was forced to make cuts to readiness funding when sequestration hit in 2013, however, those cuts came with a price, Spencer said.

“When sequestration first hit in 2013 … the readiness levels of those central to combat operations plummeted,” Spencer said. “If we get called upon, we have to be there within hours – not days, weeks, or months – so readiness is critical for us. We were not fully ready, and we cannot afford to let that happen again.”