Earlier this week, the US Air Force restored some flight hours to the combat aircraft squadrons that were stood-down in April in the wake of Congressionally-mandated sequestration budget cuts. Flying will now resume because the US Congress has approved a $1.8 billion USAF budgetary reprogramming request, $423 million of which will be used to keep operational units up and running.
"Since April we've been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness," says Air Combat Command chief Gen Mike Hostage. "Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery."
The restored flying hours are being allocated to various combat units, but also to test units, the Aggressor squadrons and units like the Thunderbirds demonstration team. More importantly, the reprogramming restores funding for advanced training courses, such as those conducted at the USAF's elite Weapons School.
The restoration of flying hours only addresses the funding problem until 1 October, however, when fiscal year 2014 begins. With little prospect of a deal in Congress, it appears that sequestration will continue into the foreseeable future, which may force the USAF to once again take drastic actions.
"This decision gets us through the next several months, but not the next several years," Hostage says. "While this paints a clearer picture for the remainder of [fiscal year 2013], important questions remain about [fiscal year 2014] and beyond. Budget uncertainly makes it difficult to determine whether we'll be able to sustain a fully combat-ready force."
But even the restored 2013 money comes at a cost to future USAF capabilities, Hostage says. Some of those costs include reduced investment in the recapitalisation of the service's ageing aircraft fleet.
"We are using investment dollars to pay current operational bills, and that approach is not without risk to our long-term effectiveness," Hostage says. "We can't mortgage our future. America relies on the combat airpower we provide, and we need to be able to continue to deliver it."