Cuts in Pentagon's spare-parts budget threaten readiness

Six years ago they didn't have enough fire-wall shutoff valves at Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York. The valves are a crucial B-52 bomber safety feature - yet ground crews couldn't get parts to fix broken ones. Today technicians at Griffiss have ample stocks of the shutoff valves, which allow pilots to stop fuel flow in an emergency. The big defense budgets of the early Reagan years have for now ended what was an Air Force-wide shortage of many types of spare parts.

``We have a healthy supply,'' a Griffiss spokesman says.

But Air Force officers are still concerned. The budget crunch of recent years has eroded increases in money for spares, and they foresee a return to empty parts bins and ``hangar queen'' jets grounded and awaiting repair.

``We reached a high point in spares funding in 1985 and are living off that,'' Gen. Alfred Hansen, head of Air Force logistics command, told Congress this month.

Dire predictions about the effects of budget cuts are a Defense Department staple. In the fall and rise and fall again of the Air Force spare-parts budget, however, can be seen some of the problems that face Defense Department officials trying to allocate budget reductions intelligently.

The fluctuations show that expensive weapons, once bought, can be equally expensive to run - and that Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci will have a hard time sticking to his stated goal of protecting military readiness.

When Mr. Carlucci submitted his 1989 budget to Congress earlier this year he said that preventing a return to the hollow military forces of the 1970s was a top priority. To do this he proposed cutting the size of US armed forces and reducing the weapons-procurement budget about 4.3 percent after inflation, while allocating a small increase in money to operation and maintenance accounts.

But this approach is really ``a mixed bag'' when it comes to keeping up a military's fighting edge, points out Stephen Daggett, analyst for the Committee for National Security.

Such things as fuel and training funds are included in the protected operations and maintenance accounts. But many spare parts - items that might be thought ``maintenance'' in a broad sense - are bought with procurement funds, and thus are getting relatively poor budget treatment.

Ammunition purchases are being reduced also, ``... raising questions about how well the budget request would provide for military readiness and the ability to sustain combat,'' according to an analysis by researcher Stephen Alexis Cain of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In 1989, the Air Force actually would not fare as badly as the other military services when it comes to spares procurement. The Air Force budget for spare and repair parts would go up, from $2.8 billion to $3.6 billion, while those of the Army and Navy would go down.

But since the boom year of 1985, the Air Force spares budget has been cut in half. This trend is what has service logistics officers concerned.

Fighters and bombers won't be grounded for lack of nuts and bolts. The reductions will likely hit items such as the fire wall shut-off valve.

Maintenance officers call these ``reparables'' - components that can themselves be repaired a number of times before being thrown out.

When a technician needs such a part and finds the shelf bare, a common practice is to cannibalize the needed item from another plane. This creates hangar queens - aircraft that are stripped of various parts and don't fly.

Air Force officials say that they see no reduction in the number of flights this year because of a lack of spare parts. But they point out that the spares crunch has already hit war reserve stocks.

These reserves, many of them stored at forward air bases in Europe, include such things as tires that would be used up quickly in the opening days of a fight. But there's no money at all in this year's budget for war reserves. In fact, there has been hardly any since 1985.

In the unlikely event of a sudden conflict ``we may not have the staying power to sustain. We are in fact a peacetime air force,'' General Hansen said.

Whether at this time in history the US needs an air force fully able to mount wartime operations is a subject open to debate. With the budget pie shrinking, all three services are doing their best to explain why the other two guys should take the brunt of budget reductions.

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