Air Force may make civilian workers take unpaid leave

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:22 AM

Ernesto Londono

WASHINGTON — Bracing for the possibility of steep congressionally mandated budget cuts, senior military officials have issued directives for fiscal retrenchment that include a 30 percent cut for Army base operations this year, personnel reductions and a halt to unnecessary fighter jet swoops during special events.

The military is ordering these trims reluctantly as the Pentagon prepares for a $52 billion shortfall that it says it will face this fiscal year if Congress and the White House do not reach a deal by March 1 to avoid across-the-board cuts under the scenario known as sequestration. As the deadline approaches, Pentagon officials have lashed out at Congress in unusually stern terms.

“The readiness of our Armed Forces is at a tipping point,” Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a Jan. 14 letter also signed by the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. “Budget conditions unfolding right now are causing this readiness crisis.”

Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that “we are on the brink of creating a hollow force,” because under the current budget conditions and legislation, the Pentagon could be ordered to keep a number of troops it can’t sustain.

“Troops on the front lines will receive the support they need,” the letter said, “but the rest of the force will be compromised.”

A spokesman for Levin said the senator has not yet responded to the letter.

The Army, Navy and Air Force have issued written guidance to commanders in recent days outlining cost-cutting measures. The Army’s, dated Jan. 16, is the most detailed and provides the clearest look yet into the preparations.

“The fiscal situation and outlook are serious,” Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno and Secretary of the Army John McHugh wrote in a memo issued to all Army commands. “Our funding is in doubt as we support forward-deployed troops, those training to deploy and Wounded Warriors.”

The memo instructs commanders to avoid cutting programs supporting wounded troops and those training for deployment. It mandates a department-wide hiring freeze and asks commanders to “terminate temporary employees consistent with mission requirements.”

Overall, the memo says the Army will seek to slash its base operations budget by 30 percent from fiscal year 2012 by cutting back on recreational programs and utilities. The Army projects that could save $2 billion.

The Air Force, meanwhile, said it has outlined cost-saving measures of its own in light of the financial uncertainty and a projected $1.8 billion shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year.

“If we did not act now,” said a Jan. 14 Air Force memo outlining the trims, slashing the budget later if sequestration occurred “would be even more devastating for readiness.”

The memo, signed by Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, also calls for a hiring freeze and axing temporary employees. It mandates that commanders curtail flights “not directly related to readiness,” including those at air shows and flyovers during special events, such as sports games. It also asks that base chiefs hold off on making nonessential upgrades to facilities, including purchasing new furniture, painting and remodeling.

If sequestration is triggered, the memo says, the Air Force may force civilian employees to take unpaid leave for up to 30 days.

The Pentagon said last month that its entire civilian workforce of roughly 800,000 could be forced to take furloughs.

Navy chiefs, meanwhile, said the rate of spending this year is unsustainable in the current fiscal environment. In a memo, they ordered a hiring freeze and asked commanders to cut back on travel, conferences and other nonessential spending as the service seeks to make up an estimated $4.6 billion shortfall.

The $52 billion in projected sequestration cuts is roughly 10 percent of the department’s non-war-fighting budget for 2013.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that the threat of sequestration is taking a toll on morale and planning.

“This is a drag on the department,” Little said. “We are investing a great number of man-hours and resources and intensive planning.”

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