Air Force budget woes could scuttle effort to add more airmen
September 27, 2016
The Air Force hit its goal of bringing active-duty end strength up to 317,000 in fiscal 2016 – but a possible $145 million budget shortfall may grind its future growth to a halt.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the Air Force to have an end strength of nearly 321,000 as of Sept. 30. And in a Sept. 23 interview at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s personnel chief, said that’s what the Air Force hopes to hit in fiscal 2017.
However, Grosso said, the White House’s proposed budget for 2017 would leave end strength flat at 317,000, and it would take another $145 million to boost active-duty airmen by roughly another 4,000 next year.
Without the money necessary to add airmen, Grosso said, it’s going to be harder for the Air Force to plug longstanding shortfalls in multiple key areas – particularly aircraft maintainers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance airmen, cyber specialists, and battlefield airmen.
Growing the Air Force is “one of the secretary’s [Deborah Lee James] top priorities,” Grosso said. “We’re just too small.”
The Air Force is now trying to rebuild its force after a steep, budget-driven drawdown in 2014 that cut nearly 20,000 airmen.
But at the Air Force Association’s conference in National Harbor, Maryland, earlier this month, James said she began to suspect midway through 2014 that airmen were already stretched too thin. She decided that the Air Force needed to start working on restoring some of the airmen that were being cut, beginning in 2016.
Lawmakers have until the end of Friday – the close of the fiscal year – to pass a temporary continuing resolution that will keep the government running until an official 2017 budget is passed. That CR would continue funding the Air Force and other services and government agencies at 2016 levels.
But, even if Congress doesn’t add additional funds to boost end strength, the Air Force hasn’t yet given up hope of growth. At the AFA conference in Orlando in February, James said she was willing to call on a rarely used authority to boost manning by up to 2 percent over end strength limits.
There’s a catch, though – to pay for those new airmen the Air Force would have to scrape together existing funds already earmarked for other programs. And Grosso said that’s going to require some painful trade-offs.
“Where do you take it from?” Grosso said. “Nothing’s easy. At that level, they’ll have to decide where they’re going to make the trades from.”
And not having a budget passed at all would complicate things even further, she said.
Grosso said it’s hard to tell what the final budget for 2017 could look like, and whether Congress could surprise the Air Force and add in a little more money for manning.
“I don’t have a crystal ball on what Congress will do,” Grosso said. “We’ve given them all the information. We will obviously be respectful of what they tell us to do.”
Grosso said the Air Force’s successful growth this year from roughly 311,000 to 317,000 is an accomplishment to be proud of – and particularly praised the recruiters and other airmen tasked with making it happen for their hard work.
“People really didn’t believe that we could grow that quickly,” Grosso said. “I think we proved that we absolutely can – and in the right skills.”
She also said the Air Force added more recruiters and other resources, and tried to make policies more flexible, to make it easier for recruiters to bring new airmen on board.
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