Air Force drafting long-term sequestration plan

The Air Force is planning for a financial future where the across-the-board defense cuts under sequestration take effect over the next decade. 

The plan, dubbed Air Force 2023, is being crafted inside the service's headquarters at the Pentagon, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Wednesday. 

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The sequester plan lays out numerous scenarios and plans of action where Air Force fiscal decisions are driven by the budget reductions under sequestration, Welsh told reporters during a breakfast in Washington. 

Work on the plan was spurred on by the service's need to take "a real honest look in the mirror" about its fiscal future, Welsh said. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is facing $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

The Pentagon's fiscal year 2015 budget plan, expected to hit Capitol Hill in February, is the first spending blueprint to account for defense cuts under sequestration. 

While details on the Air Force's long-term sequester strategy are still in the works, Welsh said the air service will not hesitate to make difficult decisions about spending.

When asked how service leaders planned to prioritize its spending plans under the sequester, the four-star flatly replied: "If it is nice to have, it is off the books." 

That said, Welsh said the Air Force simply cannot afford to abandon plans to modernize its fighter and bomber fleet. 

"We do not have [any] 'extra' anymore," Welsh said, adding that the Air Force's combat fleet is flying and fighting with little to no backup aircraft. 

Air Force modernization will put new fighters, bombers and other combat aircraft into the fleet for backup.

But protecting modernization means Air Force units and combat squadrons will not have the money to train for future wars. 

Without training "we are [simply] going to have units that are not ready" to fight, the four-star general said. 

On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman put a finer point on the issue. 

"Readiness equals training and training equals survival" on the battlefield, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told lawmakers during the subpanel's latest hearings on the effects of sequestration. 

The Air Force sequestration plan falls in line with the Pentagon's shifting tone in the fight with Congress on sequestration. 

Pentagon is now attempting to persuade lawmakers to work with the department to cope with the effects of sequestration, rather than force Congress to come up with an alternative to the budget cuts. 

"We do not have the option of ignoring reality, or assuming something will change," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a speech in Washington earlier this month. 

"We [need] Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices ... while meeting our responsibilities to our people," Hagel said at the time. 

That partnership means lawmakers will have to weigh in on several hot-button defense spending issues, from "meaningful reform" to military pensions and benefits to acquiescing on Capitol Hill's long-standing opposition to military base closures and cancellations of prized weapon systems, the Pentagon chief said. 

But it remains unclear whether Congress will be receptive to the Pentagon's new message. 

Since sequestration went into effect, lawmakers have held numerous hearings with top military and defense industry leaders to highlight what they say is the damage from sequestration. 

Aside from Wednesday's Senate defense appropriations subpanel hearing, Pentagon officials will hold a classified briefing to House members on the potential national security risks facing the United States due to sequestration. 

House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) demanded the hearing in a letter to House leadership last month. 

But for all the rhetoric coming from Capitol Hill, U.S. military leaders have all but abandoned the notion that Congress will be able to come up with a sequestration alternative. 

"We understand that there will be [budget] negotiations ... but I do not think there is any one thing we can do" to convince lawmakers on the harm sequester will do to U.S. national security that has not already been done, Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale said in October.  

A spelling error in this post has been corrected from a previous version.