Further defence cuts mandated by the Congressional sequestration law could severely damage the US Air Force's readiness if not averted, a top service official has warned.
Young pilots may not get the training that previous generations of aviators have received if the service is forced to cut its training budget, cautioned Lt Gen Burton Field, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, speaking at an Air Force Association-sponsored event in Washington DC on 25 July.
He said: "It looks like our young folks will lose a lot of experience that we've come to count on and come to accept as the way it is. It is no longer the way it is, and we're trying to quantify that institutional risk and what effect that will have on both the tactical and operational expertise and competence of our future leaders."
If the air force were forced to implement further cuts like it had to earlier this year, the consequences will be long lasting, he warns. In April, the air force had to ground nine fighter squadrons and four bomber squadrons, Field says. Other units were forced to fly at far reduced readiness levels.
While the service has managed to move enough money into its operations accounts to enable the grounded units to fly again, it only has the funds to keep those units going through to 1 October. However, aircrew skills are perishable and many of the service's aviators have lost their currencies, Field adds.
It will take time to recover from the damage caused to the USAF's already degraded readiness level prior to the stand down, and some of the damage cannot be undone, he stresses.
Field argues that one of the most damaging actions the USAF was forced to take was to shut down its elite Weapons School and the operational test and evaluation units at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Training standards across the air force are maintained by graduates of that school, Field says. "At the end of the Weapon School class that ran from January to June, we were going to stop flying the entire community at Nellis, essentially," Field says. "So that's what we did and it's pretty drastic."
And if there were to be another stand down, the situation would become much worse, says another service official. "The most dire consequences associated with limited operations for the Weapons School is that we don't produce graduates," says Lt Col Adrian Spain, commandant of the Weapons School. "The 100-plus graduates that we will not produce in December will be a gap that we cannot replace; we will just have to deal with the effects for the next seven to 10 years until the gap works its way through the system."
Because the Weapons School has traditionally produced the service's tactical experts and future leaders, the effects of a stand down will be serious. "The implications of cutting future classes quite simply are that at some point, within a few years, we will not be producing enough graduates to fill both unit-level assignments and the follow-on group/wing/test/instructor positions," Spain says. "We would have to choose between frontline unit readiness and self-perpetuation of the school, which is not where we want to be."
New Weapons School graduates are usually sent back to the combat air forces as a squadron's chief instructor pilot, overseeing the combat readiness of a unit.
"It is important to remember that our graduates, in general, will immediately go to the field to help prepare frontline units for combat operations," Spain says. "We ask them to do that for two to three years and then call them back to our test units, to operations group and wing-level jobs and of course to come back to the Weapons School as instructors."
But because of the rigid career progression path for USAF officers, disruptions caused by events like a stand down can have long lasting implications. "Once an applicant reaches a certain age we are unable to utilise them in one or the other of the areas for very long due to professional development needs/requirements that are air force career progression milestones," Spain says. "That of course puts an extreme burden on the system, so we try to minimise that situation when and where possible."
Maintaining the regular classes therefore is critical, Spain says.