Air Force Undersecretary Warns of Risks in Budget Cuts

Turbulent times: Fanning fears budget cuts will impact Air Force readiness.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Jan. 13, 2014, 5:35 p.m.

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.

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