- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2013

The Air Force is canceling all nonessential travel, conferences and research, and is cutting in half its budget for base maintenance to deal with the threat of drastic, automatic spending cuts due to begin March 1, Air Force officials say.

The service will also have to slash pilots’ flying hours by 18 percent and aircraft maintenance by 17 percent if the spending is cut, according to a Jan. 7 memo from Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.

The Washington Times has obtained a copy of the memo, which is addressed to Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter and was first reported over the weekend by The Associated Press.

The memo states that the immediate cuts will “introduce significant inefficiencies and delays” into the Air Force’s work, but the cuts would not right away affect the service’s ability to fight, which the military calls readiness.

Unless Congress finds a way to avoid the cuts, known as sequestration, “actions negatively impacting core readiness will be required,” although the Air Force will try to protect the men and women in combat, the memo says.

“Think of it like a spear,” said retired Lt. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, who until June was director of the Air Force’s headquarters staff.

“The tip is the men and women in harm’s way and those about to deploy.”

They would largely be protected, said Mr. Newton, now executive vice president of the nonprofit Air Force Association.

The cuts would be borne disproportionately by units that just returned from combat and have the greatest need for the kind of repair and maintenance work that would be targeted to save money.

If units could not replace worn-out or war-damaged equipment, repair base buildings or other facilities, and allow their pilots to take training flights, they would not be ready to fight again, Mr. Newton said.

“You are creating the conditions for a hollow force,” he said, meaning one that looks good on paper but cannot win a war.

The 2011 Budget Control Act mandated automatic reductions to planned defense spending of $500 billion over the next decade if Congress failed to agree on measures to reduce the federal deficit and start to pay down the national debt.

The “fiscal cliff” deal that lawmakers reached this month delayed the reductions until March 1, but the cuts could kick in at that point if the impasse in Congress continues.

The budgetary uncertainty for Pentagon planners is made worse because the whole federal government has been operating under temporary spending authority for most of the past year after Congress failed to pass any spending bills.

The temporary spending policy, called a continuing resolution, extends through March 27 the government funding levels from fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30.

Mr. Donley said the measures being taken immediately are “reversible and recoverable.”

“If sequestration hits and the multibillion-dollar reductions fall on the last two quarters of the fiscal year, there is no way not to impact training, flying hours and maintenance, which are things, right now, we are trying to protect as long as we can,” he said.

The sequestration would be added to reductions in spending already being implemented, which would reduce Pentagon budgets by more than $470 billion over the next 10 years.

Gen. Welsh said those cuts will leave the Air Force with 329,000 active-duty personnel, fewer than at any other time since it became a separate service in 1947.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out last week that the longer sequestration is delayed, the more quickly the cuts it mandates in the current year will have to be implemented.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta ordered military chiefs to take immediate measures to reduce the rate at which they were spending money, known as the Pentagon’s “burn rate.”

“The burn rate is unsustainable, and we have to now take measures to prepare ourselves for that eventuality,” Gen. Dempsey concluded.

The Donley memo begins the process of outlining in detail what these measures actually will mean for the Air Force.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at swaterman@washingtontimes.com.

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