While Congress races to reverse cuts to veterans' benefits, Eric Fanning is fretting over where the ax will fall next.
A bipartisan budget deal brokered by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan gave the Pentagon some respite from its looming budget woes. But the $6 billion cut to military pensions has proved politically unpalatable — although relatively small compared with the nearly half-trillion-dollar reduction facing the department over the decade — leaving Fanning, the undersecretary of the Air Force, worried the military will have to hack into other important priorities, such as training for combat operations.
Fanning, fresh off a six-month stint as acting Air Force secretary that ended in December, discussed with National Journal his budget fears, the situation in Syria, and more. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
What's at stake if Congress continues to throw up obstacles to reductions in personnel accounts?
The budget is coming down, no matter what the budget deal is, from what it was at the height of the two wars. It's not cutting individual or aggregate benefits so much as reducing the growth of them. We laid down a lot of benefits, and a lot of increases, over the last decade, well-deserved by people who were deploying. But the trajectory for that part of the defense budget is unsustainable. It's increasingly eating into investment accounts and operation accounts. It's growing faster than inflation, and it's going in the opposite direction of the overall defense budget, so we have to do something to bring that ramp down and slow the growth of those benefits.
What was the Pentagon's response to the budget deal, which relieved $31.5 billion in potential defense sequester cuts over two years?
It was remarkable to me that a bipartisan group was able to pull that deal together. It provided us much needed relief. The immediacy of sequestration was just as difficult as the size of the cut. Being able to put some stakes in the ground and start planning around that was great for us. That particular compensation plan came as a surprise to most of us, that they were going to go that way. But I think [there was] recognition that everything has to be on the table.
What happens if Congress continues to balk at politically sensitive cuts?
Everything that you try to cut has a constituency on the Hill. Not just benefits. For example, the Air Force has a tremendous excess capacity in bases right now that we have to carry as our budget goes down. Nobody wants to lose a base in his or her district. Certainly, nobody likes to cut benefits, or to be seen as cutting benefits. And then the defense industry, which is also economic growth and jobs in states and districts across the country, those have strong constituencies.
If you can't go after infrastructure, your bases, and you can't go after force structure, the cost of your people, what that leaves is investment and operations. So, either you're not modernizing, buying the next generation of weapons, and/or not using them, not training. For the Air Force, that means a lot of your pilots are not flying to the level of proficiency that you want when you send them into harm's way. The other services have the same problem.
What tends to suffer are those operations accounts, the readiness accounts. If you have the plans, you have the people, and you have the places to put them in the bases, that checks a lot of boxes in people's minds. But if we don't have the money available, and we don't protect that part of the budget for training, we take on an increased risk whenever we send our people in any of the services in harm's way. But that does have the least active, the least vocal, constituency. We joke that there's not a caucus for readiness.
Why do you think that is?
It's harder to understand. When people look over the fence line, they see planes, and they see people, and they think the Air Force is fine. For our pilots, in this case, to have the high-level proficiency that no other country brings to the fight, they have to be training all the time. It's different than just knowing they can take off and land daily. But to have coordinated campaigns in weather, at night, integrating other forces, requires constant training, [or else] that proficiency declines rapidly. But that is the least visible part of the budget until we need it.
Can you see tangible effects on readiness already?
We saw it this year. We had the rolling groundings of a lot of our combat Air Forces. When we were talking about contingencies in Syria, the pilots we would've sent were not flying anywhere near the number of hours we need them to fly. We had the money to protect people in the fight, the next ones going into the fight in Afghanistan, Korean Peninsula, and the nuclear mission. Otherwise, anything for a contingency, for those people their skill sets were deteriorating rapidly.
What's another specific consequence of sequestration?
Here's what I don't think people understand, that I worry about the most: The impact on our people. Sequestration took them away from the mission. Furloughs took civilians away. A lot of civilians talked to me about the impact of furloughs on their pocketbook. Far more said to me, "I can't do what I need to do for the Air Force, what I want to do for the Air Force, in just 32 hours a week." Same for people in uniform who weren't training, weren't doing what they signed up to do. We don't know what the long-term effect of that is going to be.
The people in the Air Force are our crown jewel. We're lucky to recruit them. We're lucky to retain them. And we've done everything possible to chase them away in the last year.