A third of the U.S. Air Force's active-duty force of combat planes including fighters and bombers will be grounded due to federal budget cuts, and only the units preparing to deploy to major operations, such as the war in Afghanistan, will remain mission-ready, a top general said Tuesday.
Other units would stand down on a rotating basis, said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.
"The current situation means we're accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur," Hostage said in a statement.
The Air Force didn't immediately release a list of the specific units and bases that would be affected, but it said it would cover some fighters like F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-22 Raptors, and some airborne warning and control aircraft in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific.
The Air Force says, on average, aircrews "lose currency' to fly combat commissions within 90 to 120 days of not flying. It generally takes 60 to 90 days to train the crews to mission-ready status.
Returning grounded units to be ready for missions will require additional funds beyond Air Combat Command's normal budget, according to Air Force officials. The stand down will remain in effect for the remainder of fiscal year 2013 barring any changes to funding.
"Even a six-month stand down of units will have significant long-term, multi-year impacts on our operational readiness," Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Brandon Lingle wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The Defense Department overall faces a $487 billion reduction in projected spending over the next decade and possibly tens of billions more as tea partyers and other fiscal conservatives embrace automatic spending cuts as the best means to reduce the government's trillion-dollar deficit.
On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama submits his fiscal year 2014 budget, the Pentagon blueprint is expected to include requests for two rounds of domestic base closings in 2015 and 2017, a pay raise of only 1 percent for military personnel and a revival of last year's plan to increase health care fees and implement new ones, according to several defense analysts.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said another huge concern is the uncontrollable cost the Defense Department is paying for health care and other benefits. He said money spent on that is not being used on preparing pilots for missions and troops for combat.
The greatest fiscal threat to the military is not declining budgets, Hagel warned, but rather "the growing imbalance in where that money is being spent internally."
For affected units, the Air Force says it will shift its focus to ground training. That includes the use of flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and aircraft knowledge, Lingle said. Aircraft maintainers plan to clear up as much of a backlog of scheduled inspections and maintenance that budgets allow.
Tom Frosch, the Blue Angels lead pilot and team commander, announced the news late Tuesday at the team's Pensacola Naval Air Station headquarters while standing in front of the one of the iconic blue-and-gold jets. Frosch said the news marks the first time since the Korean War that the team would not make the air show rounds.
"The Navy held off as long as possible with the hope of salvaging some of the season," Frosch said. "We hope we'll be turned back on for 2014."