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Auslin: Will Congress Shoot Down the U.S. Air Force?

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings to determine whether it will reject the Air Force’s plan to slash planes, bases and programs. Instead, the hearings will likely result in authorizations for funding being restored.

The catch? Congress can fund only for the coming fiscal year. After 2013, this will leave the Air Force without the funds to operate the programs it wanted to cancel in the first place.

It will also make it nearly impossible to have a coherent budgeting plan. The result, according to senior Air Force officials, will result in a hollow force of rusting planes or a force that no longer modernizes. All this will happen while the president’s new defense plans make the Air Force the key to America’s security policy around the globe.

The immediate reason for this blow-up is Congress’ unhappiness with the Air Force’s decision on what to cut. The Air Force’s fiscal 2013 budget pared $8.7 billion, in part by retiring more than 200 aircraft next year and cutting thousands of airmen and civilian employees. Yet it also proposes to reduce both manpower and planes of the Air National Guard, in order to balance a total force that can maintain high operational rates while fitting itself into President Barack Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance that was issued in January.

It is the cuts in Air National Guard assets that has riled up Congress in particular. State delegations have pummeled Air Force officials, seeking to protect Guard bases in their districts. The Council of Governors has come up with its own proposal to protect Guard numbers.

Particularly contentious are planned cuts to remotely piloted surveillance drones, Guard units operating C-27J cargo planes (the entire fleet of which is to be eliminated), KC-135 tankers and A-10 and F-16 combat aircraft.

There is a strong possibility that the Hill will “reset” the Air Force’s budget for fiscal 2013, giving it back all its cuts. While that may seem like a good outcome for the Air Force, in reality the rest of the half-decade-long Future Years Defense Program will be underfunded, given the still-standing mandate to slash the Pentagon budget by $259 billion through 2017. Congressional staffers I talked with confirm the likelihood of permanently reduced funding.

This will result in one of two outcomes, according to senior Air Force officials. Either the Air Force drops needed programs, such as next-generation GPS or airplane modernization, to fit its reduced budget from 2013 on, or it relives the 1970s, hollowing out the force by parking planes, cannibalizing parts to keep a smaller percentage of its planes in the air, slashing flying hours for pilots and further cutting the civilian workforce.

All this would happen while the Pentagon continues to call on the Air Force to undertake the daily operations crucial to making sure the joint force can fight, from providing continuous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to developing cybersecurity protocols and maintaining two-thirds of the country’s nuclear deterrent.

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