The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian kept a low profile during the opening day of the Air Force Association’s annual conference in advance of a confirmation hearing for his replacement this week.
Eric Fanning was named acting secretary of the Air Force in June — just two months after he joined the service as undersecretary — following the retirement of Michael Donley. He’s expected to return to the undersecretary position after Deborah Lee James, previously an executive at the defense contractor SAIC Inc., takes over the service’s top job. Her Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Sept. 19.
Fanning — the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Defense Department — said little of note during the first first day of the association’s three-day Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, held in National Harbor, Md., outside Washington, D.C. His keynote address on the “State of the Air Force,” was more of a historical look at the service and even acknowledged his relatively short tenure.
“Annually, the secretary of the Air Force is asked to speak at AFA on the state of the Air Force,” he said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Considering I’ve been with the AF for just five months, and acting SecAF less than that, it seemed presumptuous. Besides, you’ll be hearing from all the MAJCOM commanders as well as Gen. Welsh. Collectively they will give you a state of the Air Force briefing.”
During a media briefing later in the today, Fanning didn’t explicitly confirm a Defense News article that the Air Force is considering getting rid of its fleets of A-10 attack planes, KC-10 refueling tankers and F-15C fighter jets, as well as canceling a new search-and-rescue helicopter program, due to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. But he hinted at as much.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We are looking most closely at single-mission fleets.”
The Defense Department faces $500 billion in automatic cuts over the next decade. That’s in addition to almost $500 billion in defense reductions already included in 2011 deficit-reduction legislation. The first installment of the automatic cuts began March 1 after lawmakers were unable to reach an alternative agreement on taxes and spending. The next round takes effect in fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, and is estimated at $52 billion.
Fanning said he recently advised congressional staffers that across-the-board reductions combined with a series of stop-gap measures to fund the government, known as continuing resolutions, or CRs, would be the “worst-case scenario” for the military. Yet with political parties in Congress deadlocked on a budget deal, that’s precisely what may happen.
James, who most recently worked as president of the technical and engineering sector at the McLean, Va.-based SAIC, didn’t attend the event, according to an Air Force spokeswoman.
If confirmed by the Senate, James will be the second woman to hold the Air Force’s top job. Sheila Widnall, an aerospace researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served in the position from 1993 to 1997.
The conference is organized by the association, an Arlington, Va.-based non-profit that advocates for the service and airmen.
This year’s event comes as the service is preparing for a potential strike on Syria and to trim its budget to meet the demands of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has acknowledged that cuts to the service’s training funds have taken a toll on its ability to prepare for war.
The pomp of the conference’s opening day was marred by news of a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. A dozen people and the gunman, a 34-year-old former Navy reservist, Aaron Alexis, were killed in the mass shooting that took place at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command.