The U.S. military's ability to deter a nuclear attack and to conduct air strikes worldwide is declining due to the current economic crisis, said an Air Force general tasked with overseeing these missions.
Projected cuts to flying hours under sequestration will create a ripple effect through all aspects of these Air Force operations, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command. Congress's inaction in passing a defense budget for this fiscal year has already begun taking its toll on day-to-day operating equipment, he added.
Congress has until March 1 to prevent the across-the-board budget cuts that would take a meat cleaver to the defense budget, known as sequestration, which would include a 20 percent cut to flying hours for Kowalski's squadrons.
"When you execute flying hours, it's not just air crews getting activities. We're exercising the entire process," Kowalski said during a breakfast meeting with reporters Wednesday morning. These exercises include the people generating and fueling the planes, ordnance experts who load bombs and missiles, and those tasked with landing and maintenance.
"If you basically stop flying for three months, you're not only going to lose your air crew proficiency, you're going to lose proficiency of all of those maintainers," Kowalski said.
Newly trained technicians fresh out of training school will also be robbed of an opportunity to get real-world experience, he said.
Certain existing Air Force programs, such as the B-52 bomber which was produced from 1952 to 1962, could reduce flying hours to lower than pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels. That 60-year-old aircraft has played a critical role in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite its age. It could remain in service for as long as the 2040s, according to the Air Force Times.
All branches of the military are currently operating on a continuing resolution from Congress which limits the budget to last year's numbers and doesn't accommodate the military's planned expansion. Stockpiles of day-to-day operating equipment are starting to decline as a result, Kowalski said, such as flying gear and utility uniforms.
Money the Air Force saves for the end of the fiscal year—usually for facility maintenance—may also not be released.
But there isn't only bad news. Kowalski points to a "silver lining" in a new attitude among Air Force planners facing these sharp budget cuts.
"It creates an atmosphere where people are more willing to be innovative," he said. "We at the headquarters are certainly more willing to listen. We've put some processes in place to allow airmen and supervisors to pass information up to us, and then we've been working on a lot of that with our [Air Force] headquarters."