The U.S. Air Force’s efforts to improve its readiness and modernize its capabilities will be derailed if Congress does not repeal across-the-board budget cuts that are set to return in fiscal year 2018, service Secretary Heather Wilson said June 5.

Funds provided for fiscal year 2017 stopped the Air Force’s readiness decline, and the service’s FY 2018 budget request would begin to restore readiness and increase the lethality of the force, Wilson said at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill. But under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the budget cuts, also known as sequestration, will come back in FY 2018 unless lawmakers take action.

Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on her nomination to be Air Force secretary. (Air Force photo)
Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on her nomination to be Air Force secretary. (Air Force photo)

“If we don’t provide relief from the Budget Control Act, we will further hollow out the force and set ourselves back years,” said Wilson, who took office last month. “We have got to get beyond the Budget Control Act.”

While the matter has the attention of Congress, it is unclear what lawmakers plan to do about it. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel, and 140 of his colleagues recently signed a letter urging Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to hold a vote to repeal sequestration.

The Air Force’s FY 2018 budget request, unveiled May 23, contains billions of dollars to ramp up development work on several major new aviation and missile programs, including the B-21 bomber and the Long Range Standoff Weapon (Defense Daily, May 23). To replenish depleted munitions inventories, the request would fund the Small Diameter Bomb Increment 1, Hellfire missile and Joint Direct Attack Munition at production capacity.

“We are now expending more munitions in Iraq and Syria than we are producing, and we need to reverse that trend,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are scheduled to testify about their budget request before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 6.

Also in her speech, Wilson announced changes in aviation bonuses aimed at improving retention of pilots and aircrews. The new approach will allow the Air Force to offer larger bonuses to those who are hardest to retain, such as fighter pilots.

Wilson also announced that an Air National Guard F-16 unit will deploy to Europe in January for three months to train with allies as part of the European Reassurance Initiative.

Wilson said an upcoming light-attack aircraft experiment could help the Air Force find ways to speed up its acquisition of new weapon systems.

Under the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms, or OA-X, the Air Force plans to have industry demonstrate its light-attack offerings in August at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. While the Air Force has not committed to a procurement program, Wilson believes the experiment might provide lessons about how to turn concepts into reality more quickly.

“We want to see what the experiment tells us and whether we can move forward with a different way of getting capability from the lab bench to the flight line and the warfighter faster,” Wilson said. “All of us know that that’s one of the ways to win.”