Air Force safeguards national security in uncertain budget environment

WASHINGTON — At the same time the Air Force is navigating a fragile budget environment, it is actively engaged in addressing critical national security issues, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last Thursday.

Airmen are pursuing the fight against terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant over the skies of Syria and Iraq, she said during a “State of the Air Force” Pentagon press briefing.

“To date, we have provided more than 60 percent of the 16,000-plus sorties that have been flown,” James noted.

At the same time, she said, the Air Force is ensuring the United States remains dominant in the air and in space and executing missions ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to global mobility and global strike.

“We have never wavered … and we certainly won’t be wavering in the future,” James said.

But, the secretary said, tough budget decisions have led to an increasingly stressed Air Force.

“The bottom line … is everyone wants more Air Force, and indeed, we have never been busier around the world,” she said. “Demand for our services is way, way up, but we are meeting those demands today with the smallest Air Force in our history.”

When it comes to downsizing, enough is enough, James said.

“We have now downsized as much as we can in support of trying to balance our resources and capabilities,” she said. Already, the secretary added, the Air Force has announced that there would be no involuntary boards to reduce personnel numbers in fiscal year 2015.

“We’re actively now working toward an FY ’15 goal of maintaining end strength around 350,000 for our active-duty personnel, and that is where we intend to remain,” James said. “If anything, we perhaps need to look about going up in terms of some of our numbers, and that goes for the guard and reserve as well.”

Future budget outlook

Last year, James said, the Air Force asked Congress to avoid depleting readiness accounts as it determined the service’s budget priorities.

“Please do not make choices that end up with readiness as the bill-payer, because readiness is too important (and) we have to get our levels back up,” she said of the budget discussions.

Congress ended up approving the majority of the Air Force portion of the fiscal year 2015 defense budget request, the secretary said.

“Indeed, we ended up with a higher top line than our original request, which I think is recognition of just how necessary and valuable our Air Force is in the world today,” James said.

But not all of the Air Force’s requests were approved, she noted.

“Congress restricted our tough choices in the retiring or the reducing of aging force structure,” the secretary said. “But, they did give us the funding that we needed to sustain the operations and to operate near current force structure levels for this year. … And most importantly, they did not pay for these add-backs from our readiness accounts.”

In the fiscal year 2016 budget request, James said, the Air Force will again ask Congress to not only end sequestration, but also to allow the service to eliminate excess infrastructure.

Congress also denied the Air Force’s fiscal 2015 request to retire platforms such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft. The secretary noted that she did not regret the request, despite the aircraft’s role in the air operations against ISIL.

“The current … operation against (ISIL) — there are a number of strike platforms that are engaged in it. A-10 is one, but there are also F-16’s, F-15’s and so forth. They’re each contributing,” she said. It just makes good sense to use the aircraft while it is in the inventory, James added.

The fiscal 2016 budget request will reflect the existing operating environment, she said.

“We are constantly monitoring what’s going on in the world (and) we are constantly making adjustments as a result. It’s safe to say that the budget submission … will reflect some of those changes,” she said. “And in terms of the retiring of the older aircraft and will the plan be identical to what it was — I doubt it will be identical, but there will be some similarities.”

In addition, the Air Force will “ask Congress to resource our manpower requirements to meet mission, force structure and readiness needs to support the combatant commanders,” the secretary said, noting that she will be able to be more specific after the budget request is released.

The American people expect the Air Force to be able to fly, fight and win against any adversary, James said. “So it is important that we continue to afford our nation the Air Force capability it needs well into the future by appropriately investing in our people and in our platforms.”

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