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James, Welsh testify before Congress

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force’s top two senior leaders testified before the House Appropriations Committee on Defense March 2 and the Senate Armed Services Committee March 3.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III attested to the critical need of readiness. With less than half of the Air Force’s combat forces prepared for a high-end fight, the senior leaders agreed adjustments need to be made to support the changing world and combatant commanders’ requirements.

“We are now proposing to re-phase the retirement of the A-10 (Thunderbolt II) and the (EC-130H) Compass Call aircraft,” James said. “The bottom line here is we are not proposing to retire any of these aircraft in (fiscal year 2017). We do believe that we will need to divest these weapons systems in the future, but this (year’s change) will maintain a sufficient number of fighter and electronic attack aircraft across the force in support of current operations.”

Readiness isn’t only about the aircraft, it has to do with the force as a whole and the quality of life plays a role in ensuring Airmen are focused on doing their job. One area which has caught the attention of senior leaders is the remotely piloted aircraft community.

“The explosion in people, platforms and resources that constitute this community; the medium altitude (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) community since 2001 has been stunning,” Welsh said. “So has the volume and the quality of the work they have done in the battlefield.

“Because the mission area grew so rapidly, we have never gotten ahead of the training curve and each year, more pilots were leaving the remotely piloted aircraft force than we were able to train to go into it,” he continued.

With a “Get Well Plan” in place, the RPA community is slated to train an additional 384 pilots by the end of fiscal 2017.

“No Airman joins the service to get wealthy, but the unmanned aviation bonuses and incentive payments you have appropriated (helps) us with recruitment and retention,” Welsh said. “But on their own, they aren’t enough. If we don’t fix quality of life for our RPA operators and their families, they won’t stay in the Air Force, so we are committed to fixing it.”

Over the course of the year, the Air Force will not only be growing the size of the RPA enterprise, it will also see a modest increase of the total force from 311,000 to 317,000 Airmen.

“In reality, in our opinion, we believe mission demands in FY17 are going to require us to likely grow more,” James said. “To meet these demands, I plan to take a judicious approach to incrementally increase our total force beyond the current levels, provided we can attract the right talent.”

Attracting and keeping a diverse group of Airmen is an objective of senior leaders throughout the Air Force. They aim to keep Airmen is by increasing incentives, particularly for pilots.

“Each year we hope to retain about 65 percent of the pilots who are eligible to separate,” Welsh said. “One of the major tools we use in that retention effort is aviation retention pay. While we can’t reasonably expect to stop the outflow; we’re doing everything in our power to mitigate it and to convince those pilots on the fence to stay with us.”

While senior leaders continue to highlight the need for advancements in the service’s readiness and modernization, the Air Force is working hard with coalition partners across the globe.

“The Air Force remains engaged in every region of the world, in every mission area, and across the full spectrum of military operation,” James said. “We have never been busier on such a sustained, global basis.”