The Air Force has not completely backed down from the cuts to the Reserve and Guard proposed in the 2013 defense budget that Congress firmly rejected.
Air Force Gen. Gilmary M. Hostage III, head of Air Combat Command, explained Friday in a speech at a Washington think tank why the cuts made sense in the service's efforts to try and absorb the Air Force's portion of the $487 billion in defense cuts.
Air Force leaders chose to cut the Guard and Reserve's force structure and personnel more heavily than active duty. Senior leadership planned to reduce the Guard's force by 5,100 airmen, the Reserve's force by 900 airmen and the active duty's force by 3,900 airmen.
Hostage said Friday the service had no choice. With defense spending shrinking, Air Force leaders needed to take the appropriate steps to avoid a hollow force. He said cuts made to the Guard and Reserve were not necessarily wrong, they just didn't pass Congressional muster.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has said the service should have done a better job vetting the cuts with Congress before proposing them in the president's budget. However, Hostage said Air Force leaders had their hands tied by the non-disclosure agreements Pentagon leaders had to sign while preparing their budgets.
"When we brought [the budget] in it was disconnected from political realities so that's why we had this. I truly don't think Congress had thought through what a $487 billion cut looked like," Hostage said.
The Air Force is working with Congress as well as Guard and Reserve leaders to formulate a compromise on cuts. Hostage said he worries that those negotiations and resulting cuts will be driven too heavily on political considerations, and not operational realities. When Congress received the budget, lawmakers told the service to "go back and try again," Hostage said.
"But it's the 'go back and try again' that I worry about because the tendency will be to say don't touch any of that stuff, go take it from other places. But when we you don't touch programs, you don't touch people, you don't touch bases, you don't touch force structure, all that's left is stuff that makes all that capability effective and useful," Hostage said.
While the military and its funding shrinks, global military requirements continue to grow. The reduction in permanent forward bases has only increased the need to mobilize Air Force units. This has increased the load on Reserve and Guard units.
"We have shrunk the force and changed the balance to such a point that I need that Reserve force just to maintain my ability to keep up that ops tempo," Hostage said.
However, the ACC commander said it's a mistake to continue using the Reserve and Guard as an operational force. Doing so would strip away the cost effectiveness of the Reserve force. For this reason, he said it made sense to levy larger cuts to the Reserve and Guard rather than the active duty, which is better suited to maintain the operational tempo that Air Force leaders expect in future years, Hostage said.
"In the near horizon, I think there's a sense in 2014 when we bring the Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom to an end, ops tempo will settle out," Hostage said. "But the fact of the matter is, with the reduced permanent forward presence and the requirement for forces forward, we are going to continue this ops tempo of sending forces forward just to do the theater presence missions we do in phase zero ops."
The Air Force four-star explained that he understood why Congress and the White House is cutting the Defense Department's budget. He described the nation's deficit as America's largest threat -- larger than al Qaeda or any terrorist group. However, he feared the cuts that Congress expects the Air Force to make will hollow out the force.
"It's unreasonable to think that defense is not going to participate. Whether sequestration happens or not, hard decisions are going to have to be made," he said. "I expect we'll see more cuts to defense."
He fears those cuts could hollow out the Air Force if not done properly targeting specific accounts rather than spreading the cuts evenly across the service. If Congress protects force structure and personnel levels too strongly, it leaves the Air Force with few options.
"The only thing left to cut is operations and maintenance, flying hours, all those things that make the force ready, reliable and ready to go," Hostage said. "There's a significant element of enthusiasm or morale or impact on your force when you tell them to go out and do more but we're going to give you less to do it. The phrase, 'do more with less,' I believe, is the battle cry of the hollow force."