Air Force Bets $41 Billion on Sequestration

Air Force secretary has placed a $41 billion bet that Congress will ease off on the mandatory spending cuts in the sequester process.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has placed a $41 billion bet that Congress will ease off on the mandatory spending cuts in the sequester process and also go along with a White House proposal to raise taxes.

“We will be working hard to convince Congress that there’s too much risk” to the Air Force and the nation if the $41 billion in additional funding is rejected, James said last week at a defense issues forum.

In offering the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget plan last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also put forward a five-year projection calling on Congress to boost military spending by $115 billion through sequester relief.

Hagel is counting on an additional $26 billion for defense from the total $56 billion Growth and Opportunity Fund that President Obama plans to outline Tuesday in the White House budget plan.

The $56 billion for the Fund would come from a combination of tax increases and offset spending, White House officials.

At a conference sponsored by Bloomberg Government, James and Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force’ vice chief of staff, set out two budget alternatives for the Air Force – one if they get the extra money, one if they don’t.

If Congress were to go along with $115 billion in sequester relief, the Air Force share of the money would amount to about $34 billion, James said. The Air Force would get an additional $7 billion from the $26 billion in the Growth and Opportunity Fund, James said.

With an extra $41 billion, the Air Force could fend off many of the cuts to pay and benefits, weapons systems and readiness that Hagel and others have outlined but “we have to be realistic” and prepare for the possibility that Congress will reject additional spending in an election year, James said.

The worst-case scenario would entail retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, and the KC-10 tanker, scrimping on readiness, delaying development of a new long range bomber, and locking in limits on pay increases, James said.

The Air Force would also delay the purchase of 19 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, put on hold the $1 billion in funding to develop a new, more fuel-efficient jet engine, and cut the fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones from 55 to 45, James said.

On all programs, James said that the crucial questions will be: “Can we afford it? Can we afford it now?”

The prospects for getting sequester relief and tax increases to boost defense spending will be “brutally tough” in both houses of Congress, said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The defense spending increases pushed by Hagel and Obama might not be realistic, but “politically they’re very smart,” said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center For American Progress.

“What Obama’s trying to do is deflect the criticism that they’re cutting defense and in effect saying to them (Congress) ‘Okay you guys put sequester in – you fix it,’” said Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense for Personnel.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.