January 28, 2013 10:57:05 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
Columbus Air Force Base officials responded last week to a memo that warned of sweeping budget cuts in the upcoming year, including cutting non-critical and non-combat flying hours by 20 percent.
In a United States Air Force internal memo obtained by The Associated Press, U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley laid out broad but grim steps the Air Force intends to take, including enforcing a civilian hiring freeze, canceling air show appearances and flyovers and slashing base improvements and repairs by around 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 chop aircraft and depot maintenance by approximately 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.
More than 400 student pilots cycle through CAFB every year to obtain their wings. That number consists of 350 Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) students and 75 Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals students.
When they begin pilot training, each student pilot flies the T-6. Once that phase of training in complete, the student will either move on to the T-1 or the T-38C. After their year of training is complete, each student will have more than 200 hours of flying time.
To train the students, CAFB employes 323 active duty instructor pilots and 82 Air Force Reserve pilots.
It is unclear if the reduced flying hours will affect the student pilots at CAFB, but base officials are optimistic.
"Columbus Air Force Base remains focused on our mission to 'Produce Pilots, Advance Airmen and Feed the Fight' while the Air Force continues to urge Congress to de-trigger sequestration and so avoid furloughs and other devastating effects," CAFB officials said. "Once implementation plans for these near-term actions have been developed, the Air Force will share the details."
In addition to producing roughly one-third of the U.S. Air Force's pilots, CAFB is the largest employer in Lowndes County, with a vast civilian work force of more than 1,277 people: 472 civil service workers, 598 contractors and 207 Base Exchange, Commissary and Credit Union employees. While those jobs will not be affected, the memo does outline a civilian hiring freeze.
CAFB is planning to begin a six-month, $31 million runway renovation in March.
They are not planning to host an air show this year, but flyovers are commonplace, with pilots performing a flyover of the Lowndes County Courthouse during the annual Columbus Veteran's Day Parade in November.
The Air Force is not the only branch of service that will be affected should an agreement not be reached by the March deadline.
In a similar memo, the Navy said it faces a $4 billion shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts and called for "stringent belt-tightening measures" if a new budget is not passed and the military is forced to operate with the same funding it received in the previous fiscal year.
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 the next 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 specific dollar amount but is taking steps to curtail spending wherever possible without having an irreversible effect on the service or impacting the nation's ability to wage war.
The Air Force accounts, Donley said, will bear 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 the Air Force will try to protect training flights as far into the year as possible.
But, he noted, "if sequestration hits and the multi-billion-dollar 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."
This article contains material by The Associated Press.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.