The top civilian leader of the Air Force said Monday that she believes the service could "figure out" how to create a no-fly zone over Syria while continuing to prosecute its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria if called upon to do so, despite budget cuts and scarce resources.
Speaking at a forum hosted by the Center for a New American Security with her Army and Navy counterparts, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the Air Force would collaborate with other services to do so.
"If we were called upon to do a no-fly zone or territory of some sort, we know how to do this. We know how to put this together, how to plan it, how to execute it," she said. "It would be enormously complex. But what I'm trying to convey is, if asked to do so, we would step up to the plate; we would do it with our joint warfighting partners, and we would do it as part of the coalition."
The possibility of a no-fly zone over Syria as a measure to protect civilians against Syrian and Russian airstrikes and shield rebels backed by U.S. forces has been the subject of heated international debate.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has vocally supported such a measure, reiterating her endorsement of a no-fly zone during the second presidential debate Oct. 9.
"We need some leverage with the Russians because they're not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution unless there is leverage over them," she said then.
Clinton didn't make clear how the U.S. would enforce the zone if a Russian aircraft were to violate the no-fly order.
For the service secretaries, the pressing concern is how to resource a high-intensity, multi-country combat operation against Islamic State militants and redirect resources to this other prospective contingency. The U.S. has participated in the creation of no-fly zones in the recent past, contributing to the 2011 NATO-led coalition effort to ban all flights in Libyan airspace in a measure designed to place pressure on the regime of then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
But as the Pentagon faces what may be another round of sequestration budget cuts, maintaining readiness as troops prosecute the current fight is a challenge.
"The forces that we deploy are at the absolute top of readiness training and equipping.The next to go are at that same level," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. "It's the next force, it's the surge force after that -- that because of sequester, because of declining budgets -- we're not getting enough training for the long term."
James said she believed the efforts to decrease the size of the Air Force after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down have gone too far, and the force is now trying to strategically add more capability in key fields such as maintenance, drone operation, and cyber warfare. Her worry, she said, is that the service will stand to take more casualties if it has to face a near-peer competitor, such as Russia, in combat in the near future.
"Now, if we get called upon to do it, make no mistake, we will go and we will do the job, but at levels of lower readiness," she said. "Our worry there is that it will take longer to get the job done, we may lose more lives, more people may be hurt or killed, we may lose more assets, more aircraft, and the like. That's the impact of not having sufficiently high levels of readiness for what I call the high-end complex fight."
But the strategic goal of a military able to prosecute two major contingencies at the same time has not fallen by the wayside, according to Army Secretary Eric Fanning.
"We have not given up on the idea of doing more than one thing in the world simultaneously," Fanning said. "I don't want anyone to think that. It's about balancing risk … we can do more than one thing, and we are now doing more than one thing."