The grounding of about one-third of the nation’s combat aircraft through September – including about 20 F-16 jets from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter – will affect the country’s ability to quickly respond to a crisis, U.S. Air Force officials say.
The grounding of Shaw’s 77th Fighter Squadron and other combat units across the U.S. was announced Tuesday as a response to military cuts made to meet budget reduction measures stemming from last August’s debt ceiling debacle. The 77th will be grounded when it returns from Afghanistan, perhaps as soon as May.
The Air Force is grounding aircraft to save $591 million axed from its budget when sequestration took effect March 1. Air Force brass said in a release that as a result it will take more time to ready those crews and aircraft for missions should they be needed.
“The current situation means we’re accepting the risk that combat air power may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur,” Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, said in a release on Tuesday.
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Meanwhile, the S.C. Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing – the “Swamp Foxes” – which consists of about 20 F-16s based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, will continue to fly its missions despite the announcement that nine active duty Air Force pilots assigned to the unit will be grounded.
The remaining 40 or so Guard pilots at McEntire will continue to fly “domestic alert” missions, which scrambles jets to meet any threat over the Southeastern United States.
“We’re still flying,” said S.C. Air Guard spokesman Maj. James Roth.
When it returns from Afghanistan, the 77th Fighter Squadron will be grounded at least through September, according to the Air Force. The pilots and maintenance crews will continue to train on the ground and service the jets during the grounding and no jobs should be affected.
The squadron is one of the oldest in the U.S. military, formed in 1917 during World War I. The unit is known as “the Gamblers” with the motto “All Aces, No Jokers.” It is one of three F-16 squadrons assigned to Shaw’s 20th Fighter Wing, which is the largest F-16 wing in the Air Force.
A pilot from the 77th, Capt. James Steele, 29, of Tampa, was killed last week when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, the former commander of the Ninth Air Force based at Shaw who now serves as executive coordinator of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, called the move to ground the squadron “drastic.”
“It’s a pretty significant step when a unit has to do that,” he said. “It’s hard to stay ready when you don’t get any flying time.”
The Air Force’s budget for flying hours was reduced by $591 million for the remainder of fiscal 2013, making it impossible to keep all squadrons ready for combat. The cuts took effect March 1 and will last until the end of the fiscal year, Oct. 1.
Nationally, 17 squadrons were grounded Tuesday or will be grounded upon their return from deployments, according to the release. The squadrons represent about one-third of the nation’s combat air forces, including those assigned to fighter, bomber, aggressor and airborne warning and control squadrons stationed in the United States, Europe and the Pacific.
“We must implement a tiered readiness concept where only the units preparing to deploy in support of major operations like Afghanistan are fully mission capable,” Hostage said in the release. “Units will stand down on a rotating basis so our limited resources can be focused on fulfilling critical missions.”
Hostage added: “Historically, the Air Force has not operated under a tiered readiness construct because of the need to respond to any crisis within a matter of hours or days.
According to the release:
• Some units currently deployed – including A-10s, B-1s, F-16s and F-22s – will stand down after they return from their deployments. The remaining units were grounded Tuesday. Active-duty aircrews assigned to Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard A-10 or F-16 squadrons – which includes the 169th “Swamp Foxes” based at McEntire – under an arrangement known as “active associations” also will stop flying.
• Units that are grounded will shift their emphasis to ground training. They will use flight simulators to the extent possible within existing contracts, and conduct academic training to maintain basic skills and knowledge of their aircraft. As funding allows, aircrews also will complete formal ground training courses, conduct non-flying exercises and improve local flying-related programs and guidance.
• Ground crews will complete upgrade training and clear up backlogs of scheduled inspections and maintenance as possible given budget impacts in other areas, such as stock of spare parts.
• Although each aircraft is unique, on average aircrews lose readiness to fly combat missions within 90 to 120 days of not flying. It generally takes 60 to 90 days to conduct the training needed to return aircrews to combat-ready status, and the time and cost associated with that retraining increases the longer that crews stay on the ground.
“This will have a significant and multi-year impact on our operational readiness,” Hostage said in the release. “But right now, there is no other acceptable way to implement these cuts.”