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Air Force budget cuts take shape

Repair work, air shows, civilian workers targeted

– Air Force leaders will cut flying hours by nearly 20 percent and prepare for a possible end to all noncombat or noncritical flights from late July through September if Congress can’t agree on a budget and billions of dollars in automatic cuts are triggered.

In an Air Force internal memo obtained by The Associated Press, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley laid out broad but grim steps the service will be taking in coming days and weeks to enforce a civilian hiring freeze, cancel air show appearances and flyovers, and slash base improvements and repairs by about 50 percent.

Beyond those immediate actions, Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said in the memo that the service will make plans to chop aircraft and depot maintenance by about 17 percent and initiate widespread civilian furloughs if there is no resolution to the budget issue by March. The cut in flights would reduce flying hours by more than 200,000, the memo said.

In a similar memo, the Navy said it faces a $4 billion shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts and called for “stringent belt-tightening measures” if a new budget is not passed and the military has to operate with the same funding it got for the previous fiscal year.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, in the memo obtained by The Associated Press, said a number of actions must be considered to seek cost savings, including postponing the decommissioning of ships, if necessary. Other possible steps included a civilian hiring freeze, termination of temporary employees, cuts to base improvements or repairs and reductions in travel, information technology and administrative spending.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders have predicted dire consequences if Congress fails to pass a new budget and automatic cuts take place. The Pentagon is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect in early March if no agreement is reached.

The Air Force accounts, Donley said, will bear about up to 20 percent of the Defense Department reductions

“We’re trying to take prudent actions now that are as reversible, recoverable as possible,” Donley said. “We’re trying to protect maintenance for aircraft and weapons systems sustainability as long as we can into the fiscal year.”

Welsh said commanders will make decisions on how best to curtail flying and that the Air Force will try to protect training flights as long into the year as it can.

But, he noted, “if sequestration hits and the multibillion-dollars reductions fall on the last two quarters of the fiscal year, there is no way not to impact training, flying hours and maintenance, which are things, right now, we are trying to protect as long as we can.”

Officials said civilian pay is about 40 percent of the Air Force’s operations and maintenance budget. Panetta has made it clear that if there is no budget agreement, the civilian workforce will face sweeping cuts and unpaid furloughs.

There are about 800,000 civilians across the Defense Department and nearly 1.4 million in the active-duty military. The Air Force numbers about 330,000 active-duty service members and about 143,000 full-time civilians.

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