A cloud of uncertainty has risen at Wright-Patterson and within the Air Force because of a lack of a defense budget, says a top commander, who did not want to see a return to civilian employee furloughs that happened four years ago.
With a deadline to reach a budget deal looming within days, Congress must either pass an appropriations bill to fund the government, including the military, or extend a continuing resolution that froze spending at the last fiscal year’s levels and is set to expire Dec. 8.
If neither happens, it could potentially face a partial federal government shutdown — as it did in 2013 — when thousands of Wright-Patterson employees were temporally sent home.
The stakes were raised Tuesday when President Donald Trump tweeted he did not see a deal being reached by the deadline with differences with Democrats over immigration, crime and taxes. Democratic congressional leaders canceled a meeting with Trump at the White House after the tweet, saying they would work instead with their Republican colleagues.
Col. Bradley McDonald, Wright-Patterson installation commander, said the lack of a final budget in place has raised concerns at the largest single-site employer in Ohio.
“Every time we come to the latter part of one of these time lines, it causes part of our workforce to feel concerned so we would hope to avoid that,” he said.
The base commander is among a growing list of Air Force leaders who have called attention in recent days to the impact of the Budget Control Act 0f 2011 – also known as sequestration – on operations and modernizing the fleet.
This month, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein decried years of capped spending under sequestration was straining the Air Force’s ability to meet the nation’s demands.
“What keeps me up is if we can’t move past sequestration in its current form, we’re going to break this force,” Goldfein told reporters.
The Air Force has operated under budget caps “for six years now and it has slowly worn the force down,” said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant. “The people are tired and the planes are getting old. If it doesn’t get some relief soon, it won’t be able to win wars.
“The reason the Air Force has been so outspoken on the budget is because it can feel its strengths slowly ebbing away,” he said. “There simply isn’t enough money to do all the mission that the national strategy requires of it.”
In an interview Tuesday, McDonald said he’s concerned about the impact on the ability to recruit a future workforce, particularly as retirements grow among aging workers. He added the Air Force has put off replacing and repairing aging infrastructure.
“We as an Air Force have over the last several years taken a deliberate risk in aging infrastructure because we flat out needed to modernize our force,” he said. “At some point and time the bill is going to come forward.”
If spending reductions imposed under sequestration are not lifted, defense baseline spending would be capped at $549 billion, tens of billions less than what Congress has authorized. The Air Force would face a roughly $15 billion reduction, service branch officials said.
The fallout would hurt the Air Force’s push to restore readiness, McDonald said, and impact a wide range of operations at Wright-Patterson, from research work at the Air Force Research Laboratory to the missions at 445th Airlift Wing which flies C-17 transport jets around the world, McDonald said.
When sequestration hit hardest in 2013 — a year when two rounds of temporary furloughs of civil service employees at the base — Wright-Patterson employment dipped to about 26,000 before slowly recovering to more than 27,000 today, said Jeff Hoagland, Dayton Development Coalition president and CEO.
In the midst of the years-long budget uncertainty, Hoagland said more people seek the private sector for secure employment rather than the federal government. In the past, the opposite was true, he said.
The private sector pays more, he added. “Are we getting the best and the brightest people in the Department of Defense anymore?” he asked. “To me, that’s a big question.”
Several sources said they anticipate Congress will pass an extension of the continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown next week.
“Each day that goes by makes it less and less likely that Congress will reach a budget deal” by the Dec. 8 deadline, “and the recent breakdown in talks between congressional Democrats and the White House on a budget deal makes the odds of a deal even more remote,” Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. But the “most likely result” is an extension of the continuing resolution, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.