Wednesday, January 16, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Our request on sequester

During their visit to Little Rock Air Force Base last week, Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tim Griffin didn’t exactly panic when they discussed future cuts with military leaders, although Pryor and Griffin conceded the Jacksonville base will lose some C-130s and personnel as billions of dollars are cut from the military budget in the next decade.

Not only will the military lose substantial funding, but so will almost every federal department and agency. The government may not be able to pay its bills after March if Republicans and Democrats don’t address our fiscal crisis.

Pentagon officials have warned Congress that the budget impasse will hurt the military’s readiness and ability to plan for the future. Flight times have already been reduced 20 percent, civilian hiring frozen and nonessential procurement and travel eliminated.

The Pentagon says Washington’s “budget gymnastics” have compromised national security, forcing the military to prepare for a fiscal cliff of its own, even if sequestration is still just a threat.

The military could lose $54.6 billion from this year’s $530 billion budget and hundreds of billions more for a decade if the stalemate continues.

The White House and Congress only temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Eve, but there will be more budget cuts in March, especially if there’s no deal on raising the debt ceiling. The Pentagon needs to know how much to cut so it can keep airplanes in the air and troops fully equipped for battle.

Prudent voices in Washington are nervous about the next fight over the national debt limit and sequestration, which could harm the military and our national security and hold up checks to military personnel and government contractors, as well as Social Security recipients and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and others depending on the government.

The so-called fiscal cliff may be a metaphor for our nation’s financial problems, but this is what political brinkmanship looks like: The government will soon lack the ability to issue checks and will have to send out IOUs instead.

Republicans had championed the idea of forced spending reductions, but not so much lately. Rep. Griffin and other budget cutters in Congress thought they could reduce military spending and other domestic programs across-the-board by 9.4 percent. These forced cuts, called sequestration in Washington lingo, would mean more than $1 trillion eliminated from the military budget over the next decade.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said last week that sequestration “will have an immediate and negative impact on Air Force readiness” because of reduced flying hours and scaled back operations. Cutbacks in the past have resulted in “a hollow force, one that looks good on paper but lacks the resources to adequately train, maintain or keep up with emerging technology.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others in the Pentagon say the budget cuts will make it more difficult for the military to function as a first-rate fighting force.

Last year, the Air Force eliminated 30,000 positions and retired nearly 1,900 aircraft. According to Donley, the size of the Air Force will bottom out at 329,000, the smallest force since the service started in 1947.

The economy is bound to improve and all the cuts planned for Little Rock Air Force Base may never happen. There is also talk of budgeting in 36 more C-130s around the country. Perhaps the Jacksonville base could retain at least a dozen of them, especially if the Avionics Modernization Program is revived, which would keep hundreds of older C-130s flying for another generation. The AMP program costs $7 million per plane, which is a bargain, considering the new C-130Js cost about $65 million each.

The C-130Js are expensive, which is why the Air Force has been slow incoporating them into the cargo fleet. About a third of the 80 C-130s on base are Js, although a few more are on order.

As Donley pointed out last week, “The latest modernization of the C-130 fleet began in 1999, but at the current rate, only 42 percent will have been replaced with the new J-model by 2019 — 20 years later.”

Deep cuts will make the Air Force transport fleet less effective. That’s why Sen. Pryor and Rep. Griffin think such plans may be a bit hasty. Griffin says Congress should approve the proposed cuts, but if Washington runs out of money, that may be academic. In any event, each congressional delegation will then fight to defend its own military bases until the money runs out. “In the end, these are military decisions,” Pryor told us.

Still, Little Rock Air Force Base towers over most others in its record of accomplishment in wars and humanitarian efforts. It should be spared major cuts as the budget fight resumes in Washington.