NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The sequester cuts have limited training aircraft sorties to the point that the head of Air Combat Command said he could not deploy stateside combat units to respond to a crisis.
"If someone throws the gauntlet down now, they're gonna want me to deploy forces. I'm going to say 'the hell I am! I'm not gonna to do it,' " ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said. "We'll have to pull forces out of other places that are currently already doing missions … in order to get things done."
Hostage made his remarks to reporters Tuesday after making the case for boosting funding and support for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The Air Combat Command chief said he was forced to ground 17 units in July because he couldn't maintain aircraft because parts were not available due to a lack of funds. When the money did begin flowing again, he said it began "a slow, painful process" to get back up to speed.
Hostage said it took three months before the instructor force was back to the point they could take up student pilots. Pilots across the command lost qualification because of the delays and downtime, he said, which is why he would not deploy them.
Earlier, in a speech at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition here, Hostage spoke about the need to continue to support the F-35 development. The JSF program has long been bogged down with technical problems, missed deadlines and cost overruns, though the Air Force now says the aircraft will achieve initial operational capability by 2016.
But Congress' moves to reduce the debt -- including cutting billions from the Defense Department budget over the next decade -- could jeopardize the deployment of the planned JSF fleet and, with that, possibly cost the U.S. its airpower edge, according to Hostage.
Russia and China are both developing fifth-generation fighters, he said, and in five years time these could begin putting the Air Force's fleet of F-15s and F-16s at a serious disadvantage.
The Air Force is slated to buy 1,763 F-15s -- barring budget cuts that reduce the number. Hostage, when asked what year the Air Force would have "a robust" F-35 fleet, replied not with a date but with the 1,763 planes called for in the program of record.
"If we keep slowing the ramp, we'll never get to 1,763 because I'll be 'bone yarding' the first ones before I get the last ones. It's critical we get to that number," Hostage said.
In the short term, however, sequester cuts already are taking their toll on the Air Force.
Hostage said he has spent the summer on Capitol Hill presenting ACC's case to lawmakers and staff.
"They understand it," he said. "But it's this inability to deal with the debt and the subsequent fiscal repercussions, and they're so far apart on how to deal with the fiscal repercussions that we're kind of a by-product of that."