The chief of the Air Force's air component headquarters for strategic deterrence said today that as the Eighth Air Force works to implement a 10 percent reduction in flying hours, officials there are realizing that there's no easy way to mitigate a loss of flying time.
Maj. Gen Stephen Wilson, commander of the Eighth Air Force, spoke this morning at the Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit and, in an interview with Inside the Air Force following the speech, said the effect of a cut in flying hours is fairly simple. "The less you fly, the less experience you get, the less proficient you are," Wilson said. "And in our game, we've said we need to be bringing our A-game every day.”
Earlier this month, Air Force Global Strike Command announced plans to trim flying hours for its B-52 fleet by 10 percent in preparation for the across-the-board sequestration cuts that could be triggered next week. The worst of the sequestration-related cuts will likely pass over the nuclear enterprise, but the targeted flying-hour reduction will allow the command to get ahead of the curve.
Wilson said command leadership is working with Air Force leadership to determine how best to apply the reductions and what impact they may have on flying and fleet readiness. The duration of sorties will be shorter, he said, but the number of sorties flown will likely not change.
"We're going through the numbers now," he said. "So we've already started a 10 percent reduction in flying hours and keeping the nuclear enterprise, the people who do the nuclear mission, as a priority. But if we have to start reducing the number of sorties we fly, the hours we fly are crucial. Again, it's one of those long-term things that says OK, if the average crew member needs to fly about 20 hours per month and now they're not going to get to fly the sorties, and then we get into a tiered-readiness type thing. We're trying every way we can to avoid that across the nuclear fleet."
The impact of fewer flying hours is felt in other areas as well. "Planes like to be flown," Wilson said, and aircraft idleness can lead to a greater need for maintenance over time.
The larger effects that sequestration may have on the Eighth Air Force are still unclear, but Wilson said he's concerned about the cuts' hindering the service's recruitment efforts. In recent years, the organization has struggled to build experience in certain career fields, particularly in the area of maintainers. Through ramped-up training and recruitment efforts the experience gap has improved and the mission-capable rate has increased, but sequestration could deliver a blow to those efforts.
"If I can't make instructor pilots, we can't train students and the students come to our airplanes to fly, to keep the pipeline open," Wilson said. "People don't realize the second- and third-tier effects of sequestration."