The U.S. Air Force reinstated flight training at combat squadrons that saw their operations curtailed in April by “sequestration” budget cuts. The service announced the resumption of flight training on July 15; it stays in effect until the new fiscal year begins on October 1.
Restored flight training became possible after the U.S. Congress approved a Department of Defense (DOD) request to transfer or “reprogram” Fiscal Year 2013 funds from other accounts to pay for operational shortfalls, including $1.8 billion for the air force. Flight training hours represent $208 million of that amount, according to the Air Combat Command (ACC).
The USAF has said that curtailed operations due to sequestration affected about one third of active-duty combat aircraft, including those assigned to fighter, bomber, aggressor and airborne early-warning and control squadrons in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific. The service said that it stood down 12 squadrons, shifting their emphasis to ground training, and maintained other squadrons at “tiered readiness” levels.
“Step one is to take the seven squadrons that we’re flying at the basic military capability rates and bring them back up to full combat mission readiness,” Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, said during a Pentagon briefing in late May, after the DOD asked the Congress to reprogram funds.
Sequestration forced the DOD to reduce its spending by $37 billion from March through September, and has cost the air force alone $10 billion. As of July 8, some 652,000 civilian employees of the DOD were required to begin taking 11 days of “furlough,” or unpaid leave, through the end of the fiscal year to help cut costs. Sequestration will require similar annual spending reductions through 2021 unless the Congress stops the process.
Air crews lose their currency to fly combat missions within 90 to 120 days of not flying, and it takes 60 to 90 days to return them to mission-ready status, according to the ACC, which has headquarters at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. The command said that restored flying hours will be allocated to combat aircraft and crews across operational and test units, including the Air Warfare Center Weapons School, Aggressor squadrons that replicate threat aircraft during Red Flag exercises, and the Thunderbirds F-16 aerial demonstration team.
“Since April we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness,” stated ACC commander Gen. Mike Hostage. “Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery.”
The Thunderbirds, based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, will resume training flights but will not perform demonstrations. The squadron anticipates “that it may be able to resume a limited number of aerial demonstrations next calendar year,” according to its commander, Lt. Col. Greg Moseley.