By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
A changing mission and an emphasis on cutting the federal budget could result in a smaller Air Force, the commander of Air Education and Training Command said Friday during a visit to Enid.
Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. said that could lead to a reduction in the number of pilots the Air Force needs, which could impact the volume of students trained annually at Vance Air Force Base and other undergraduate pilot training bases.
“I can’t say exactly what the future plans for the Air Force are, because some of that is yet to unfold,” he said, “but I suspect that in some ways, we will be a smaller force as we move forward.
“So if we are a smaller force, then we will have a lower requirement to train pilots, both in undergraduate pilot training and in the advanced training that we also do in this command, for fighters and transport aircraft. My sense is that we will have a slight decrease in the demand signal for pilot training and flying training in general.”
In fiscal year 2012, 335 pilots graduated from Vance, flying 50,865 sorties totaling 73,740 flying hours.
Rice, who has been leader of the major command of which Vance is a part since November 2010, has seen the Air Force face many challenges in that time, among them the sequester spending cuts that have forced furloughs for civilian Department of Defense employees.
This is not, however, the most challenging time the service has ever faced, said Rice.
“In many ways, whatever time you’re in an enterprise that’s as vast and has the responsibilities of a United States Air Force, it’s always challenging,” he said. “This happens to be our set of challenges.
“Leaders who have been in our positions before us have managed to bring the Air Force through very tough times in the past, and we are committed, and resolve to do that today.”
The Air Force is in the midst of acquiring a new tanker, the KC-46, of obtaining more advanced F-35 fighters and new satellites. On top of that, the Air Force someday is hoping to replace the venerable T-38, which has been in service training student pilots for more than 50 years. The T-X project seeking a replacement for the T-38 is on hold because of budget constraints, Rice said.
“We’re still working to find a way to afford that,” he said. “We all acknowledge the need for the aircraft, the T-38 is 50 plus years old now. The good news is, it’s a great airplane, and we’re managing to keep it flying.”
Not knowing what the future holds for defense spending is a huge concern for Air Force leaders, Rice said.
“I think if we could get some certainty on what the top line is going to be, we would be in a much better position to be able to plan,” said Rice. “Getting smaller is one thing, having fewer resources, but having an uncertain environment, I think, is probably the most difficult part of managing during this period that we have.”
The Air Force has found itself mired in a sexual assault scandal that has touched every branch of service. The Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office estimates 19,000 sexual assaults were committed against military personnel from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 31, 2011. The Air Force has seen its own sexual assault scandals. Beginning in 2009, 43 female trainees at Lackland AFB, Texas, reported being sexually assaulted by their military training instructors. Earlier this year, the officer in charge of the Air Force SAPR Office was arrested on a charge of sexual battery.
The Air Force has outlined a series of moves designed to combat the problem of sexual assault, including automatic discharge for any airman found to have committed sexual assault.
“At the end of the day, effort is one thing, but this is a challenge that demands results,” said Rice. “We’ve got to prove over time that we can actually drive the number of assaults in the military much closer to zero than we are today.
“I am encouraged that we have started with a set of, I think, very important initiatives to both highlight this issue and its importance to our airmen, that we’ve taken a set of initiatives to be more responsive to the needs of victim of this terrible crime, and it is a crime, and that we are starting to address some of the more significant root causes of the problem.”
Airmen at Vance and other bases Rice has visited are taking this problem “very seriously,” he said.
“We, the Air Force, have to solve this problem for the Air Force,” said Rice. “It can’t be solved by other people.”
Rice, who was at Vance to speak to the graduation ceremony for the latest class to complete pilot training, said base visits help him do a better job of managing the more than 67,900 people and 1,369 aircraft under his command.
He said his ability to work with other Air Force leaders to shape the service’s future is affected by visiting with airmen at AETC bases like Vance, officers and enlisted alike.
“This is absolutely essential for me to do my job,” Rice said. “Having their perspective is very helpful to me.”
Rice told the graduates of Joint Specialized Pilot Training Class 13-12 not to take for granted “the great opportunity that they have been given and that they have earned by getting their wings.” He advised them to “hit the ground running,” at their next assignment. Attitude, he said, is everything.
“Regardless of how well, or how un-well, they did in pilot training, quite frankly, no one is going to care when they get to their first operational unit,” said Rice. “They’re only going to care about what they can contribute to the mission, so they have an opportunity to make a great first impression.”
Speaking at pilot training graduation ceremonies, said Rice, takes him back to his undergraduate days at Williams AFB, Ariz. A video recap of the students’ year of training played during the ceremony was particularly meaningful to the general.
“Watching the experience that they went through replayed in that video absolutely took me directly back 34 years ago to when I was graduating from my undergraduate pilot training (with class 79-07),” he said. “It’s something that you will never, ever forget. It’s one of the most significant moments that you will have in your life.”
Rice is in the final months of his tenure as AETC commander. He is scheduled to retire Dec. 1, but said he might leave his post earlier than that.
“It has been a great ride,” he said. “I don’t know what the future will hold. It’s been a great opportunity for both me and the rest of my family to experience life in the Air Force.”