The U.S. Air Force will begin grounding combat air squadrons Tuesday in response to forced spending cuts that have eliminated more than 44,000 flying hours through September, according to internal documents obtained by Defense News.
The Air Force’s budget for flying hours was reduced by $591 million for the remainder of fiscal 2013, making it impossible to keep all squadrons ready for combat, according to an April 5 memo signed by Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon, director of operations for Air Combat Command. The across-the board spending cuts, called sequestration, took effect March 1 when Congress failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan.
Seventeen combat-coded squadrons will stand down effective Tuesday or upon their return from deployments, according to the documents. The Air Force will distribute 241,496 flying hours that are funded to squadrons that will be kept combat ready or at a reduced readiness level called “basic mission capable” for part or all of the remaining months in fiscal 2013, the documents said.
“Units will stand down on a rotating basis so our limited resources can be focused on fulfilling critical missions,” ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said in a statement.
The grounding includes F-22s from the 1st Fighter Wing’s 94th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. The squadron is returning from a deployment to the Pacific where airmen participated in a high-profile exercise in South Korea. Other squadrons to stand down when they return to the U.S. include F-16s from the 4th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which is returning from a deployment in the Pacific; B-1B Lancers from the 34th and 37th Bomb Squadrons at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; and A-10s from the 354th Fighter Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
The other grounded units include B-52s from the 2nd and 5th Bomb Wings, F-15Es from the 336th, 492nd, 494th and 391s Fighter Squadrons; F-16s from the 77th Fighter Squadron, 555th Fighter Squadron, 18th Aggressor Squadron and the Thunderbirds; and A-10s from the 81st Fighter Squadron, which will close as a result of the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
Grounded associate units — active units sharing aircraft with Air National Guard and Reserve units — include the 158th, 169th, 187th, 442nd and 917th squadrons. Only active-duty pilots in those units are affected by the standdown.
Any flying hours not used by the grounded squadrons will be reallocated to meet Air Combat Command requirements. Additionally, all combat aircraft will stand down the last seven operation and maintenance days in September, the memo said.
“Historically, the Air Force has not operated under a tiered readiness construct because of the need to respond to any crisis within a matter of hours or days,” Hostage said in the statement. “The current situation means we’re accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur.”
Air Force officials had warned that mandatory budget cuts would lead to a reduction of flying hours by 18 percent, with readiness dropping to “sub-optimal levels,” according to information provided to Congress. The drop in flying hours would mean that it could take up to six months to repair the damage to readiness, the Air Force warned lawmakers in a February presentation.
Average aircrews lose currency to fly combat missions within 90 to 120 days of being grounded, and it takes from 60 to 90 days to conduct training to return aircrews o mission-ready status, according to Air Combat Command.
“We’re entering uncharted territory in terms of how we’ve had to take this year’s cuts and make adjustments to mitigate the most serious impacts,” Hostage said. “Remaining as mission-ready as possible for combatant commanders is our priority, and we’re prioritizing spending to ensure this imperative is met.”
Air Combat Command officials announced a stand down and reallocation of flying hours for the rest of the fiscal year due to mandatory budget cuts. The limitation of flying hours means squadrons will stand down or maintain readiness at the reduced “basic mission capable” level, while others will remain at full “combat mission ready.”
The affected aircraft and units, by airframe:
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Contributed by Brian Everstein and Marcus Weisgerber of DefenseNews.