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Bible Verse, Not Cuts, Draws Lawmakers' Ire

Some U.S. congressmen seemed more upset about a recent incident involving a bible verse at the Air Force Academy than the service's plans to scrap entire fleets of aircraft due to budget cuts.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh defended the service's budget request for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, during a hearing last week of the House Armed Services Committee.

The spending plan calls for eliminating the entire fleets of A-10 gunships and U-2 spy planes, and reducing the inventory of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as MQ-1 Predator drones, in part to cope with automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

Yet some lawmakers wanted to hear less about the service's budget plans and more about how a cadet at the academy was recently forced to take down a bible verse he had posted on a whiteboard in the hallway outside his room. The passage read, "I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me," and drew complaints from other cadets, faculty and staff.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said the incident was of "major concern" to him. "This cadet had no intention to offend anyone or any group," he said. "How is that offensive to leadership principles?"

After he went back and forth with James on the facts surrounding the case, Forbes said, "I hope you guys will come back to us on this and, for once, the Air Force start standing up for these cadets and their rights instead of just constantly saying, 'If anybody at all opposes it, we're going to make them take these things down.'"

Welsh, the former commandant of the academy, said messages are routinely taken down from the boards to ensure compliance with existing policy, which seeks to balance an individual's right to expression with the military's need for order and discipline.

Other panel members such as Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., did voice concerns over the service's plans to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, known as the Warthog, in favor of precision-strike aircraft.

Hartzler, whose district includes Whiteman Air Force Base, which houses a Reserve fighter squadron of A-10s, said the gunship is the "most effective and cost efficient platform that we have for close air support." She noted the cost per flying hour of the A-10 is about $17,000, compared with about $22,000 for the F-22 and $54,000 for the B-1.

But in general, the panel's response to proposed cuts was relatively muted, leaving open the question of whether Congress will act to restore the fleets or undo sequestration in fiscal 2016 and beyond.

If lawmakers leave the reductions in place, the Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the KC-10 refueling tanker, in addition to the almost 500 craft already slated for elimination; defer upgrades to the Global Hawk and retire the Block 40 version of the drone; curb the number of patrols of Predator and Reaper drones; and cancel such programs as the Combat Rescue Helicopter and the next-generation jet engine, James said.

"It's not a good deal for us," she said. "It's not a good deal for the country."

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