AF: Fighters might be grounded, but pilots could get ready for combat quickly
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Even though the Air Force has grounded a third of its fighter squadrons due to sequestration, Pacific-based pilots and planes could be ready for combat at a moment’s notice, officials said Monday.
Earlier this month, the Air Force announced that it would reduce flying hours of all aircraft by 18 percent and stand down a third of its fighter squadrons in an effort to save money in the wake of the ongoing Defense Department budget cuts.
Pacific-based units have not been spared the axe, despite the constant threat of North Korean provocation and a U.S. commitment to focus military efforts on the region. Still, experts say there’s no reason to worry because pilots could get the required rating quickly in an emergency.
At Misawa Air Base, F-16s from the 13th Fighter Squadron will remain combat-mission ready, but aircraft from the 14th Fighter Squadron will only be “basic mission capable through September,” according to Capt. Cody Chiles, director of 5th Air Force public affairs.
Capt. Korry Leverett, the 35th Fighter Wing’s public affairs chief at Misawa, said combat-ready pilots have completed enough training to be proficient in all aspects of their mission.
Pilots who are “basic mission capable” have done the minimum level of training for some aspects of their mission. However, they only need a little extra training to become combat ready, he said.
“The number and duration of training activities necessary to be rated CMR (combat mission ready) varies depending on each pilot’s currency in different aspects of the mission,” Leverett said.
Aircraft mechanics at the wing will clear a backlog of scheduled inspections and maintenance to the extent possible, given budget impacts on things like spare parts, he said.
“Sequestration and flying hour reductions are having an impact on 35 Fighter Wing readiness, and the wing is working to mitigate the short- and long-term impacts,” he said, adding that no Misawa units have been directed to stand down.
Leverett declined to elaborate further on the squadron’s readiness due to security concerns.
At Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, the F-15 Eagles of the 67th Fighter Squadron won’t be combat mission ready this fiscal year while those of the 44th Fighter Squadron won’t be combat mission ready until August, Chiles said.
“However, we continue to ensure our servicemembers have the training and equipment required to conduct our mission,” said Maj. Christopher Anderson of the 18th Wing. “Due to operational security, we will not discuss readiness levels, but we are fully capable of conducting our mission and fulfilling our mutual security obligations.”
At Yokota Air Base, the 374th Air Wing’s C-130 Hercules transports also will spend less time in the air, Chiles said.
“The 374th Air Wing’s C-130’s did not participate in Exercise COPE Tiger (alongside forces from Thailand and Singapore) this year due to sequestration,” he said.
Capt. Ray Geoffroy, 374th spokesman, said the base’s budget for flying — both operations and maintenance — was cut by 25 percent for all of 2013.
“These cuts are felt more dramatically because they come halfway through the year, so our flying must be curtailed to compensate for the cut, as well as the time spent flying at our normal tempo earlier in the year,” he said.
Geoffroy declined to discuss specific operational readiness requirements or elaborate on aircraft and aircrew readiness for security reasons.
However, he said: “The 374th Airlift Wing has made preserving combat capability its top priority.”
The wing is allocating remaining flying hours this fiscal year — and managing operations and maintenance funds — in a way that will preserve the wing’s ability to meet mission requirements, he said.
“This is a challenging task requiring careful coordination between wing leadership, our operations group and the maintenance group,” he said. “Through these efforts, Yokota will remain ready to answer the call with rapid tactical airlift capabilities.”
Ralph Cossa, a retired Air Force colonel who is president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum in Hawaii, said the cuts are not as bad as they sound.
“At any given time you may have a number of squadrons that are not combat mission ready for training reasons or because aircraft are grounded or airmen are deployed,” he said.
In a crisis, the squadrons could quickly be brought up to speed or training standards could simply be lowered, he said.
“It is not like suddenly we would be vulnerable to attack or these guys couldn’t defend Japan,” he said, citing the recent deployment of B-2 and B-52 bombers to Korea as evidence of the U.S. military’s capabilities and commitments in the region.
Cossa said the Air Force and other service branches are trying to pressure lawmakers to stop sequestration.
The problem is that the negative message they are sending to Washington is also being picked up by the public in allied nations in the Pacific where there is concern about America’s ability to live up to its promises, he said.
The Air Force also is trimming 1,000 jobs from its civilian workforce, though officials said the impact will be limited.
Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman Capt. Rebecca Heyse said 62 positions will be eliminated at PACAF’s headquarters, and others will be trimmed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, and Yokota Air Base, Japan.
“The majority of the positions are entry to mid-level employees in administrative support positions,” Heyse said.
The Air Force can move employees who are cut into vacant positions at their installations to minimize job losses, she said.