James: Air Force grapples with Congress to fund readiness

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  • By Cheryl Pellerin
  • DOD News, Defense Media Activity
To balance readiness today and modernization tomorrow, the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request is shrinking like today’s defense budget thanks to Congress’s own priorities and the approaching threat of sequestration in 2016, Air Force leaders said July 30.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III briefed the Pentagon press corps on the state of the Air Force and its prospects for the future.

James said that after 13 years of war, “In my opinion we are not where we need to be or want to be in the Air Force when it comes to our full spectrum of readiness.”

The volatile world makes James concentrate on readiness, she added, “ … and readiness is key because at any time we could be asked to step up to the plate and conduct some dangerous missions.”

Building to full-spectrum readiness was the reason for pumping more money into the Air Force fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, the secretary said.

“This includes investment in training and range infrastructure, munitions and maintenance. All of these things play into readiness,” she added.

Because of tight budgets, James said, “We … did suggest retiring some older aircraft to pay for this priority as well as tomorrow's modernization, and it has been difficult to get some of these proposals approved through the Congress.”

It seems, at least for now, that Congress will not grant the Air Force authority for another round of base closures, the secretary added.

“The message that General Welsh and I keep taking to Congress at every stage that we can is … please do not carve money out of our readiness accounts as these priorities need to be paid for, because readiness is key and we need to get those levels up,” she said.

“Please Congress, lift sequestration in fiscal year 2016 because if these difficult choices in fiscal year 2015 were troublesome, hold on to your hats,” she said. “It’s going to get worse and even more difficult in fiscal 2016.”

In seven months on the job, James said she’s seen all five Air Force missions at work at 39 different bases in 22 states and overseas in Afghanistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the U.K. and Germany.

From the beginning she established three priorities, she said -- taking care of people, striking the right balance between readiness today and providing for readiness and modernization tomorrow, and especially in a very tight budget environment, making sure that every dollar counts.

“We have really impressive Airmen. They are smart, they are dedicated, they are motivated. They're really pumped is the way I would put it,” the secretary said, “But … I do feel our Airmen are feeling some strains.”

The biggest reason, she said, is the uncertainty they face because of downsizing and uncertain budgets. James addressed what she called two special topics -- sexual assault and the total force.

“My take on this, after … all of my discussions, plus my discussions with other leaders … is that we are making good progress,” James said.

Sexual assault reporting is up, which she interpreted as victims feeling more confident to report the crime. In addition, training has improved, reports indicate commanders are taking the issue seriously.

“All of these things to me add up to … progress on this front. But progress is not good enough,” the secretary added. “What we have to do is keep on it, (meaning) persistent focus, persistent leadership and persistent action. And the chief and I are fully committed to doing just that.”

On total force, which James said means active-duty Air Force, National Guard, Reserve and civilian workforce, the Air Force has committed to assessing the force mission by mission through the end of the calendar year.

The goal is to see what additional capability the Air Force might put into the Guard and Reserve in the future, she added.

“We believe we'll have 80 percent of our entire force looked at between now and the end of the year,” the secretary said, adding that she expects the Air Force to determine more missions and capabilities for the Guard and Reserve in the future.

Welsh discussed three acquisition programs the Air Force prioritized this year -- the F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter, the KC-46A Pegasus tanker and the long-range strike bomber -- because, he said, “we believe they are operational imperatives for the joint force of 2025 and beyond.”

Beginning with the fighter fleet, he said the F-35 is the only way to ensure that future air campaigns are not a fair fight.

“We're reaching important F-35 milestones,” he said. “Eglin Air Force Base just took delivery of the 26th F-35A in May, giving the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin its full complement of aircraft.”

Welsh called this a major milestone on the flight path to initial operational capability for the Air Force in late 2016.

The recent F-35 engine fire at Eglin AFB received a lot of attention, he added, slowing flight activity as aircraft and engine manufacturers worked with the Air Force to understand the root cause.

“We've implemented a restricted flight envelope that … will remain in effect until we understand that root cause completely, we've identified it and we've corrected it,” he said, adding that engine fires happen when high-performance aircraft are flown.

“I also think it's important to keep this particular fire in context,” Welsh said. “The F-35 has now flown about 8,700 sorties and over 14,000 flight hours. This is the first time we've had a major engine fire. We inspected every other engine in our fleet and we didn't find any with the same level of wear and tear in the area that failed in the mishap engine.”

The general said he’s confident the program will remain on track and the Air Force will reach initial operating capability by December 2016.

“This fire is not going to affect that,” he added.

Addressing tankers, Welsh called the Air Force refueling fleet the lifeblood of U.S. military global response capability and added, smiling, that it was older than almost everyone in the briefing room.

“The KC-46 Pegasus is another top operational imperative for the joint force,” he said. “The 179 aircraft we will fill between 2016 and 2028 will bring more refueling capacity, improved efficiency, increased cargo and air medical-evacuation capability to our Air Force and to the joint warfighting team.”

The first test aircraft is scheduled to fly fall 2014, he said, adding, “We remain on track for all major program milestones and we will continue to work very closely with (Boeing) to bring this great new airplane online.”

Global reach is fundamental to warfighting success in the U.S., Welsh added, “and Pegasus will make it reality for the next 40 years.”

The long-range strike bomber is the third of the Air Force’s major must-have programs, giving the nation the ability to hold any target on Earth at risk, the general said.

“(The bomber) will be a long-range, air-refuelable, highly survivable aircraft with significant nuclear and conventional standoff and direct attack weapons payloads,” he said. “We plan to field 80 to 100 of them with initial operational capability in the mid-2020s.”

The Air Force has established an achievable and stable set of requirements with a realistic target cost for the airplane, the general added, and it expects a robust competition. Contract award is expected in spring 2015.

In her remarks about the future of the Air Force, James said the service was rolling out a new strategic framework, "A Call to the Future.”

The roadmap will help guide the Air Force’s long-range planning efforts and help the service make smart money and policy choices going forward.

“(The premise) is that we never seem to accurately predict the future,” James said. “We never get it right. (So) we're going to have to continue to be able to step up to the plate and do a range of missions and also that we need to get ahead of the curve when it comes to the enormous and rapid change we're seeing in our world.”

James said she’s talking about changes in technology, in different nations and groups acquiring weapons, and in how people and nations communicate with each other.

“Whoever saw Facebook and Twitter 10 years ago? These are all enormous changes in a short period of time. Geopolitical instability changes as well,” the secretary said. “ … So instead of focusing on a specific threat we're trying to focus and recognize the quick pace of change and we have to recognize in ourselves the imperative that we are able to change more quickly as well. Strategic agility is what we're shooting for (and) this … should allow us to rapidly adjust to evolving threat environments faster than our potential adversaries, and help us counter some of the great uncertainty.”

James said she predicts the Air Force will embed the concept of strategic agility into key areas, including people and training, acquisition, affordability and exportability.

The future Air Force will invest more in nuclear deterrence and continue investment in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities.

“We talk about a multidomain approach,” James said of the strategic framework. “This is the idea that we operate in three domains – air, space and cyberspace … Maybe it’s not the correct answer that it requires a new plane or a new munition to go on a new plane. Maybe there are ways to leverage space or leverage cyber to address that problem. We don't know, but we have to open our minds much more to what we're calling the multidomain approach.”

The bottom line, she said, is that the Air Force is in good shape today but it’s feeling some strains.

“The future depends in large part on how well we plan and execute some of the things we've talked about today and how well we do that consistently over the years,” James said, adding that the Air Force will continue to work with Congress and that the services would continue to talk about lifting sequestration and protecting readiness.