By Jamie Crawford
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.
Forced spending cuts known as the sequester, and the furloughs to the workforce that have come with it, are compromising the Air Force's readiness for unknown contingencies and its ability to modernize, the top officer said Wednesday.
"We are trading modernization against readiness. It's the only place we have to go for funding because of this arbitrary mechanism that is sequestration, and it’s causing a real problem on the readiness side of the house and putting our ability to modernize over time at risk," Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said.
Welsh spoke at the opening session of the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado during a discussion moderated by CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.
Welsh said that on the operational side of the Air Force, there have been noticeable effects beyond the areas that have stayed fully funded, such as operations in Afghanistan.
"If something new happened, we would be impacted dramatically because our ability to respond quickly is affected," Welsh said.
One potential concern could be if President Barack Obama asked the Air Force to establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Such a decision would require either taking time to get aircraft and flying squadrons in ready shape for the mission or undertaking it immediately - but at "increased risk" to the men and women executing the plan, he said.
"That to me is the danger of sequestration," Welsh said. "I don't believe we should be accepting that risk."
When King turned the conversation to the role of outside contractors who handle sensitive information from the Pentagon in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks, Welsh said continued vigilance over the vetting process is key.
"I'm confident that we have the safeguards. The problem is I think NSA had the safeguards" as well, Welsh said. "The key is to just control access to information. Everybody doesn't need it, and you have to very carefully vet the people who have the skills to operate on your networks because we know the cyberdomain is now a huge vulnerability, as well as an opportunity."
With the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the military taking a prominent role in the national discussion, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, recently sponsored legislation that would remove such cases from the military chain of command. King asked the chief of staff whether that was the wrong approach.
"I wouldn't classify Sen. Gillibrand as wrong. She's passionate about the topic, which is a wonderful thing," Welsh said. "This is an issue that we have to partner with Congress, with victims advocacy groups, universities and experts around the country. We have not solved this problem ourselves. It's just a fact."
There were 792 reported sexual assaults in the Air Force last year, Welsh said, while adding he expected the unreported number to be much higher.
Beyond the mission of the pilots and the people who service the planes, Welsh said there are many unseen aspects of his service that provide critical protections to the nation's security, such as space operations and cyberdomains.
Welsh said rival nations and other actors that focus on America's technological vulnerabilities are one of the Air Force's greatest concerns.
"I think right now the biggest one for all of us is understanding the potential impact of threats in the cyberdomain over time," he said.
"I think there are some threats also to operations in space that are significant that we have to be concerned about. It’s high-end technologically countries that are capable of doing it. It’s no secret who they are, and we have got to understand what their investment is creating and what it means to us over time. Those are the ones that we worry about the most."