Wednesday, March 13, 2013

TOP STORY >> Sequestration cuts start to hit LRAFB

Leader staff writer

Brig. Gen. (Select) Brian Robinson, 19th Airlift Wing commander, explained Tuesday to the community council — area and business leaders — how sequestration is affecting Little Rock Air Force Base.

Just announced was a cut in the tuition assistance program and the cancellation of the annual Air Mobility Rodeo competition, which pits C-130 crews from around the world against each other in readiness exercises. This goes with civilian employee furloughs, any planned fly-over for special events and any air show unless the community covers all the costs.

Robinson was guest speaker at a quarterly meeting of the base’s Community Council. He started the meeting lightheartedly, saying “welcome to our quarterly sequester luncheon.” After that it was all business.

“You are already seeing less flying overhead,” Robinson said. “We’ve cut our time in the air by 35 percent overall. For C-130Js, sorties, or flying exercises, have been cut from five hours to two hours. For the H model, sorties have been sliced from five hours to 3 ½ hours.”

The 19th Airlift Wing will use the simulators more, but Robinson pointed out they are already being used at about 98 percent capacity and 92 percent of that is for student training which has the priority. Losing a day of student training is not like a sick day, it’s like a three-to-one ratio in lost days, he explained.

The commander said the task is to handle the cuts with minimal impact on the mission and the people. “But the longer sequester goes the greater the risk, the greater the impact,” he said.

Robinson said he has been told to take actions at this point that are reversible to mitigate as much of the impact as possible.

He said at the big picture level the Department of Defense has to make $46 billion in cuts over the next six months, or about a nine percent cut across the board. He said the civilian furloughs that have already been announced would save $5 billion. “But there’s still $41 billion to deal with.”

The civilian furloughs will start April 15. “We have about 650 civilians on the base affected by the furlough and they will have to take two days off every pay period. That amounts to a 20 percent salary cut for at least the next six months. That hurts,” Robinson said, adding that the impact of the furloughs across Arkansas will be $19.5 million.

He said because a number of the base civilian employees work in the health clinic, the furloughs would affect access to health care for all military members. The sequester will delay infrastructure repairs and future construction.

“We are looking for smarter, more efficient ways to do things,” Robinson said. “For about the last 15 years, if we needed money for a project or a mission we were able to get it. Now we are hearing the words ‘constraints and restraints’ with everything we do.”

In response to a question from the crowd of about 150, Robinson said, “We will probably see a decrease in our readiness based on our standards. But we will get through it and come out stronger. We just have to make sure the decisions we make are safe and with the least risks.”

The commander was concerned about the way news of the tuition assistance cuts got out. “It made the round on the Internet and emails before we had a chance see what would be the best way to handle it.”

Robinson wasn’t the only base leader to speak of what the future holds. Col. Todd Pavich, vice commander of the 314th Airlift Wing; Col. Steve Eggensperger, commander of the 189th Air National Guard, and Col. Archie Frye, commander of the 22nd Air Force Detachment 1 also spoke.

Pavich said, sequester to the side, this would be a year of a lot of changes in both personnel and mission for the 314th. “Pretty much everyone is leaving,” he quipped, adding that many of the officers in leadership roles will be transferring or retiring.

“There’s a lot of flux as to how and who will execute our mission in the future. It could be the Guard, the Reserves or a combination of all three of us,” he said.

On the good news side, Pavich said, “We will keep the C-130H training here, but there will be a drawdown of manpower.”

He said two more C-130Js are slated for the base this year. “We’ll get one in July and the other in late August or September and it will continue to grow. Every country wants C-130s in one form or another and we have had a solid flow of international students.”

Brewer said there are a lot of changes in the 189th too. “In March we had two change of command ceremonies and two longtime Guard members retire.”

Because of sequestration, the unit took about a 40 percent cut in March. “We are postured to get a number of slightly used C-130s, they’ll still have the new car smell, in 2015 and along with that about 150 additional Guardsmen,” Brewer said. He added that the Guard is growing at the state level although it is shrinking nationally.

Frye said the decision to cut tuition assistance hurts. “That’s our number one recruiting tool.” Like the other commanders, Frye said the detachment is in flux, too.