Mike Terry, Deseret News
WASHINGTON — Air Force leaders will cut flying hours by nearly 20 percent and prepare for a possible end to all noncombat or noncritical flights from late July through September if Congress can't agree on a budget and billions of dollars in automatic cuts are triggered.
In an Air Force internal memo obtained by The Associated Press, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley laid out broad but grim steps the service will be taking in coming days and weeks to enforce a civilian hiring freeze, cancel air show appearances and flyovers, and slash base improvements and repairs by about 50 percent.
Beyond those immediate actions, Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said in the memo that the service will make plans to chop aircraft and depot maintenance by about 17 percent and initiate widespread civilian furloughs if there is no resolution to the budget issue by March. The cut in flights would reduce flying hours by more than 200,000, the memo said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders have been predicting dire consequences if Congress fails to pass a new budget and automatic cuts take place. The Pentagon is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect in early March if no agreement is reached.
In a briefing with Pentagon reporters, Donley said the Air Force is not targeting a particular amount in savings to achieve, but is taking steps to curtail spending where possible at this point without having an irreversible effect on the service and not impacting the nation's ability to wage war.
The Air Force accounts, Donley said, will bear about up to 20 percent of the Defense Department reductions
Asked about Panetta's directive to possibly cancel ship, aircraft and depot maintenance in the third and fourth quarters of this fiscal year if there is no budget solution, Donley said the Air Force will review each type of aircraft and its requirements.
"We're trying to take prudent actions now that are as reversible, recoverable as possible," Donley said. "We're trying to protect maintenance for aircraft and weapons systems sustainability as long as we can into the fiscal year."
Welsh said commanders will make decisions on how best to curtail flying and that the Air Force will try to protect training flights as long into the year as it can.
But, he noted, "if sequestration hits and the multibillion-dollars reductions fall on the last two quarters of the fiscal year, there is no way not to impact training, flying hours and maintenance, which are things, right now, we are trying to protect as long as we can."
Officials said that civilian pay is about 40 percent of the Air Force's operations and maintenance budget. Panetta has made it clear that if there is no budget agreement, the civilian workforce will face sweeping cuts and unpaid furloughs.
There are about 800,000 civilians across the Defense Department, and nearly 1.4 million in the active-duty military. The Air Force numbers about 330,000 active-duty service members and about 143,000 fulltime civilians.
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