NAVAL STATION NORFOLK -- Budget cuts will force the Navy to scale back flying hours for some of its East Coast-based pilots, sacrificing a degree of readiness in order to save money.
Naval Air Force Atlantic will "probably" reduce flying hours for pilots in two carrier air wings to 11 hours per month, Rear Adm. Ted N. Branch said Monday. That will allow those pilots to maintain the basic skills, but not the kind of warfighting skills needed in a combat zone.
An F/A-18 fighter jet squadron would normally fly about 25 hours per month to maintain what is called prime mission readiness, Branch said.
In order to lessen the impact, the Navy will pick two carrier air wings that are farthest from deployment.
One will be Carrier Air Wing 7 once it returns from deployment with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The other will be Carrier Air Wing 1, currently attached to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The "TR" is currently in the Newport News shipyard, nearing the end of a midlife refueling.
To deal with across-the-board cuts under sequestration, Branch said he had little choice but to restrict flight hours. He hopes to save $80 million over six months.
"Most of my budget authority is in the flight hour program that pays for flight hours in training and readiness," he said. "To take the kinds of cuts that were proposed in those accounts, we only have one big lever to pull."
The 11-hour-per-month level is known in Navy speak as "tactical hard deck," the minimum pilots need to maintain basic proficiency.
"If we go down to less than 11 hours per month for air crew, we experience, historically, a significant increase in the mishap rate," Branch said. "That seems to be the sweet spot for proficiency-level flying."
For now, Naval Air Force Atlantic will not take the more drastic step of grounding a carrier air wing, but Branch did not rule it out if money continues to be tight.
"We also have air wing shutdowns in the plans, but we're going to hold off on shutdowns as a last resort," he said.
Branch said he must balance the cost-savings associated with reduced hours or shutdowns against the extra cost of ramping up to return to normal operations
Defense civilian furloughs are also in the works, and that will hurt the Navy's flying program. The Defense Department has estimated it will require 14 days of furloughs -- one day a week over 14 weeks. But that isn't official. A decision is expected soon from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"Here at AIRLANT, in particular, they make up about half of our core staff here," said Branch, referring to civilian employees, "and do a terrific job in helping us keep the force manned trained, equipped and ready. The Navy doesn't want to furlough that work force. We may be in a position where we don't have any choice."