Report outlines how sequestration affected Air Force

Sequestration had a broad impact on the Defense Department, hurting combat readiness while increasing or deferring the cost of some weapons programs, a government watchdog agency said.

A Government Accountability Office report released this week found $37.2 billion in defense spending cuts that began in March 2013 hit the operations and maintenance budget hardest, accounting for more than half the reduction (55 percent).

It was followed by procurement (26 percent), and research and development, testing and evaluation (16 percent) — all key spending areas at Wright-Patterson, headquarters of the Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The cuts furloughed thousands of Wright-Patterson civil service workers for six days in the summer of 2013, creating a work backlog.

Lights were switched off in building hallways, repairs went unmet, service contracts were scrutinized to save money, and a fleet of historic presidential airplanes went unseen by thousands of tourists, among other impacts.

“There is no doubt that sequestration had an impact on Wright-Patterson, and if it returns in (fiscal year 2016), we anticipate serious issues that will continue to impact long-term maintenance and sustainment on critical infrastructure as well as military construction programs,” Col. John M. Devillier, Wright-Patterson installation commander, said in an email.

“While we will certainly try to mitigate impacts based on lessons learned, the arbitrary nature of sequestration gives us little latitude.”

‘Bread and butter’

The high cost of cuts to operations was no surprise to Cassie Barlow, a retired Air Force colonel and former base commander at Wright-Patterson. She led the base through a “very trying time” of civilian worker furloughs and spending cuts. The 88th Air Base Wing took an immediate budget cut in operations of about 20 percent.

“That is the bread and butter of an air base wing — operations and maintenance,” Barlow said Thursday. “That’s why sequestration was such a tough time for the 88th Air Base Wing, because we really had to put a lot of things on hold with the reduced budget. … We really had to become very, very good at prioritizing.”

Furloughs hurt employee morale, she said.

“We lost a lot of trust with our civilians at the time because of what we had to do,” Barlow said. “We certainly didn’t want to do it, but because of the budget we had to do it.”

The GAO concluded that some effects of sequestration are hard to determine and may not be known for years, such as the costs of delaying repairs to facilities and equipment.

The watchdog agency reported that the Defense Department had taken limited steps to document the fallout from the cuts, but recommended the Pentagon do a better job.

“Without documenting, assessing, and sharing DoD’s and the services best practices and lessons learned from implementing sequestration … DoD is missing an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge that would help facilitate future decision-making about budgetary reductions should sequestration occur again,” GAO said.

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Less research

The GAO report showed sequestration took an 8 percent bite out of the research and development and procurement budgets for the F-35, F-22, and F-15 fighter jets and the research budget for the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.

Five of eight Air Force commands reported some bases had fewer firefighters and security personnel and equipment than needed, the GAO said.

Air Combat Command told GAO that 17 of 62 operational squadrons were grounded for three months, pilot flying hours were slashed in 10 others, and the Air Force canceled or reduced participation in 32 out of 48 large-scale exercises, which impacted 283 units and 13 nations.

A six-day furlough of AFMC maintenance depot workers in other states caused a backlog in the repair of aircraft and engines. AFMC lost 1 million work hours, or 25 percent of its capacity in the last quarter of fiscal year 2013, GAO said.

The Air Force flew aircraft longer than scheduled maintenance times and put off buying non-essential spare parts because not enough money was available, GAO reported.

“… Army, Navy and Air Force officials expect that deferred maintenance will lead to future increased costs that could not be quantified at the time of our review,” the watchdog report said.

In some cases, the military reprogrammed funds or relied on money in reserve accounts to ease the impact of the cuts, GAO said.

“The GAO report findings on the impact of the sequester are just what we predicted,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said in a written statement to this newspaper.

Turner, chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, had lobbied for the GAO report in a past defense bill.

“I have voted against sequestration and have continued to fight for the removal of these devastating cuts to our men and women in uniform,” he said.

Turner said in February that he led 70 House Republican lawmakers to find a budget solution to fully fund the defense budget in fiscal year 2016.

What’s next?

The Budget Control Act of 2011 imposed sequestration on the federal budget through 2023, mandating total cuts of $1.2 trillion with half the savings targeted at the defense budget.

The first year of sequestration was different from subsequent years, according to Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.

In 2015, the Pentagon reported two-thirds of savings would come out of technology accounts, and a third out of spending on military readiness, he said in an email. The GAO report noted Congress gave the military financial relief to ease the impact of the sequester in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

“The biggest impact of the sequestration law will be to military modernization, meaning the purchase of new weapons,” he added. “That isn’t as serious as taking readiness hits in the near term, but the Air Force already is operating the oldest fleet in its history, so over the long term it could undermine the service’s ability to fight and win.”

Operations and maintenance accounts took the largest hits because it’s “the biggest pot of money in the budget,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Harrison said it’s unlikely sequestration will occur in fiscal year 2016 — which starts Oct. 1 — because Congress was not planning to appropriate more money under the Budget Control Act than spending caps allow, but it will work around that by appropriating more for overseas contingency operations.

“This is essentially exploiting a loophole in the law that allows Congress to increase spending without changing the (Budget Control Act),” he wrote.

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