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Air Force would have its wings clipped amid budget cuts

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Two-thirds of active duty Air Force combat units will drop below "acceptable readiness levels" by mid-May and be "completely non-mission capable" by July if automatic defense budget cuts occur on March 1, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said Tuesday.

In addition, the Air Force may have to furlough 180,000 civilians, resulting in a loss of more than 31.5 million "man-hours of productivity and specialized expertise" and more than 200,000 flying hours, Gen. Welsh told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration are set to begin March 1. The Pentagon would be forced to cut at least $42 billion from its budget by Sept. 30 and as much as $500 billion from its 10-year spending plan.

Gen. Welsh said that flying operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, nuclear deterrence and initial flight training would be protected from sequestration, but the cuts would have "an immediate effect" on the Air Force's ability to respond to multiple, concurrent operations around the globe.

In anticipation of sequestration, the Air Force has implemented a hiring freeze, delayed facility maintenance and upgrades, canceled travel, and reduced training.

"A $53 million reduction in specialized training … postpones the promotions of over 8,000 airman, and reduces the certification levels of those career fields to critical deficiencies," Gen. Welsh said in prepared remarks.

Chief of the Army National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass, who also testified before Tuesday, said sequestration and a year-long continuing resolution that holds defense spending to 2012 levels would limit the Guard's ability to train and maintain its forces and equipment.

"In a matter of months our readiness as an operational force for our nation's defense and as an immediate homeland response capability available to the governors will erode," Gen. Grass said.

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