July 17th, 2013
11:53 PM ET

Sequester cuts keep Air Force general worried about readiness

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."

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Filed under: Air Force • Aspen Security Forum • Military • Terrorism
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. John

    One last fact, Sequestration is for 10 years ... We are in year one, so nine more furloughs to go after this.

    July 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  2. George patton

    This kind of worrying is totally ludicrous since we already have an air force at least five times larger than what we need. We can cut our air force strength in half and still be very able to defend this country but the war lobby in Washington doesn't want us to know it!!!

    July 18, 2013 at 11:47 am | Reply
  3. Salty Bob

    Republicans allowed it to go thru they had a chance to stop it and did nothing. Let the cuts stand as the pain is now being felt by all. and ditch the tea party morons who allowed it to happen in 2014.

    July 18, 2013 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • rubbabubba

      Is there no Democrats in Congress ?

      September 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  4. SayanIndia

    In addition the protracted and unsustainable rising development cost of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (formerly known as Joint Strike Fighter) is certainly giving General Welsh enough nightmares.

    The key for United States in the present stringent moment is to find at least two key reliable allies in every continent of strategic importance to share initiatives.

    Sayan.

    July 18, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
    • Desert Tortoise

      I believe that is the case today. As for the F-35, find out how many countries are partners sharing some of the costs of developing the aircraft. Taxpayers in several of our allies are invested in that aircraft

      July 18, 2013 at 9:49 am | Reply
  5. Desert Tortoise

    Each department of the government is required by law to spend the budget money Congress authorizes it to spend on the exact items Congress authorizes it to spend it on. Example, the military can't, by law, take money meant for procurement or research and spend it on maintenance. That is misappropriation and a major felony.
    Sequestration came half way through the fiscal year and the DoD, following the spending plan it is required to follow by the Appropriations Act passed with each budget had already spent half it's legally authorized amount of money to spend. What this means is that a cut of 10% in it's total year budget is going to end up being a cut of 20% for the last half of the budget.
    But it gets worse because you cannot reduce payments on contracts already signed without breach of contract that requires payments to the contractor. We are engaged in combat operations abroad and these have to remain funded. So what is left to save money on? Maintenance, training and civilian salaries, and these are where the hits are happening. Lack of training means your people are not ready to fight. Lack of maintenance and parts means aircraft and ships are not ready for immediate use. They will require repairs before you can engage in combat, or accept added risk of loss. Does that make sense?

    July 18, 2013 at 1:43 am | Reply
  6. Phelix Unger

    Its more of a question then a comment, what dollar amount was lost to the armed forces as a whole, I thought the orginal number was somewhere in the range of 85 billion, and this amount lost would be felt all over the country, as opposed to just the military. If the number is 85 billion, then how is this able to have the devasting effect this officer states. With billions and billions of dollars being spent in every field of the US military, it doesn't make sense that the loss is so dramatic as is being portrayed. This sounds more like the military is espousing the sky is falling tactic to ensure they don't lose another dime. America has the largest military budget on the planet and the ability to bring any nation on earth to its knees if the gloves were off, they really must think the American people are stupid to continue to use such hogwash.

    July 18, 2013 at 12:31 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Sequestration appears to be working! Government agencies "suddenly" find money in their budgets to reinstate projects they initially cut! Example:
      CNN reported yesterday that the Air Force "found" money to reinstate their Thunderbird airshow team. Is this a critical national defense item? No, it's an image thing! But, after grounding the Thunderbirds (due to sequestration), the Air Force found enough spare change to restart the program! Air shows are set to resume in 2014.
      Maybe Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, should take a closer look at where Air Force funds are really being spent instead of crying "Oh poor Air Force"! Waste not, want not!

      July 18, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply
      • John

        All the military services didn't have to put thier employees on furlough, because as you pointed out, StanCalif. The money is there. It was some jerk in DC (not talking about POTUS, but he should share the blame) that thought it would be unfair for DOD employees weren't furlough. Glad the FAA was saved though ... NOT!

        July 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
      • John

        ... if DOD employees ...

        July 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm |

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