The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 21, 2013

Waiting on Congress: Vance wing commander keeps eye on ‘sequester’

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — If the so-called “sequester” spending cuts go into effect March 1, there will be an impact on Vance Air Force Base, said Col. Darren James, 71st Flying Training Wing commander.

But at this point, he said, it is difficult to gauge the breadth and depth of that impact.

“Now, just like much of the rest of the country, we’re waiting to see what Congress does,” said James.

If Congress doesn’t act to stop sequestration, it would result in some $500 billion in across-the-board defense spending cuts over the next decade, $12.4 billion of which will come in the rest of fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30.

The Defense Department already is facing $487 billion in budget cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

To deal with those cuts, the Air Force already has taken several money-saving actions, James said, including instituting a civilian hiring freeze, cutting non-mission critical training (like attending conferences), restricting the purchase of supplies, deferring non-emergency facility repairs and curtailing non-mission critical flying, like flyovers or air shows.

Sequestration’s potential impact on Air Force bases is unknown, but some hints are emerging. On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta informed Congress he is prepared to order furloughs for civilian employees. That means beginning April 1, each of Vance’s 284 appropriated fund civilian employees will face 22 unpaid furlough days before the end of September.

Recently, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said civilian DoD employees could lose 20 percent of their normal income through September. In the case of Vance’s civilian government employees, that figure would top $4.4 million, out of the base’s total annual impact on Enid’s economy of more than $240 million.

Vance’s civilian government employees do a number of jobs on base, including simulator instructors and controllers and trainers in the control tower and radar approach control.

“We can control those furlough days,” said James, “so what we would try and do is work the schedule so that we would minimize mission impact.”

The base’s 1,019 civilian contract employees would not be affected by sequestration, said James, since the contract is fully funded through the end of FY 2014.

By law, Vance’s 1,332 military personnel cannot be subject to furloughs, James said.

Vance’s flying training mission, however, could be impacted by sequestration. Recently, Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command, which oversees Vance and other pilot training bases, said under sequestration, advanced pilot and instructor training will be curtailed beginning April 1, with undergraduate flying training cuts to follow in late August or early September.

“If nothing changes, that’s the expectation,” said James. “Until we see the plan that’s rolled out as far as how the Air Force is going to react, I think it is tough to say exactly what the impact will be for Vance.”

James said he expects any impact of the sequester cuts on Vance to be delayed somewhat.

“Chances are because we are a pipeline organization, I would tend to think that the impact we will see will be later in the fiscal year,” he said. “I think we will be a little bit insulated from the immediate impacts. But we’re all going to share in the pain if sequestration does take effect.”

For the time being, he said, it is business as usual at Vance.

“Our expectation is that we will continue to produce the number of pilots we were tasked to produce, regardless of what’s going on with the budget,” said James.

In fiscal year 2012, Vance trained and graduated 335 pilots, flying 50,865 sorties totaling 73,740 flying hours.

Beyond the threat of sequestration is the fact Congress also has failed to pass a funding bill for the Department of Defense. Until March 27, the Pentagon is operating under a continuing resolution that continues funding at 2012 budget levels.

“More than likely what they would do is extend the continuing resolution,” said James. “What we would prefer is that the presidential budget would be instituted so that we would know what our funding line is through the end of the fiscal year.”